Advocate for problem gamblers pushes for federal legislation

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Thirty years ago, casinos in two U.S. states generated $10 billion a year in revenue. Today, casinos in 36 states are collectively worth $95 billion annually.

That multiplier effect, said Keith S. Whyte, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Problem Gambling, has not been accompanied by corresponding federal regulations or funding to address problem gambling.

"Where's the federal government been?" Whyte asked. "They've been absent. They've been AWOL."

Whyte gave his keynote address before a crowd of 200 at the 30th annual conference hosted by the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling Thursday at the Water's Edge Resort and Spa in Westbrook. The Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, the Connecticut Lottery, and Autotote, which handles pari-mutuel gaming in Connecticut, sponsored the conference.

State lotteries have likewise grown from 14 in 1980 to 45 in 2010, Whyte said.

Solutions that move people from writing policy to advocating for problem gamblers will emerge in the coming decade, he said, but only in spite of a "crazy quilt" of legislation and regulation.

This country has 12 commercial casino commissions; 225 tribal regulatory agencies, 42 lottery commissions, and 42 pari-mutuel regulatory agencies, plus 48 states that regulate charitable gaming and numerous regulatory bodies at the county level, Whyte explained.

Couple these statistics with the widespread misperception, Whyte said, that compulsive problem gambling is not a treatable disorder but a "moral weakness" and a matter of willpower, and the result is that only about 1 percent of pathological gamblers a year today seek treatment, compared with 20 percent of substance abusers.

States are complicit in perpetuating this situation, he added.

"Gambling is such an enormous source of revenue for state government, so they've got a really hard time getting their hands around maximizing benefits while addressing problem gambling," he said.

Asked after his talk to elaborate, Whyte explained, "Some of it is ignorance. (States) don't see (problem gambling) as a disease. Some of it is, they're indifferent. If you're indifferent, you realize there (are) a number of people in your state suffering from this problem, but you're unwilling to do something about it. Yet, addressing the problem saves the state twice as much money as it costs."

In Connecticut, a study on the prevalence of problem gambling is done only every 10 years, said Marvin A. Steinberg, the executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, in a separate interview. Spectrum Gaming Group of Linwood, N.J., filed the last report with the state in June.

"The idea of the study is really good, but unfortunately there's no planning whatsoever to do anything with the information and there's no follow-up," he said.

Whyte emphasized that there are benefits to recreational gambling, not just problems, but the costs can be hidden.

A comprehensive federal Problem Gambling Act introduced this past year will be reintroduced next session in an attempt to address these issues, Whyte said. The legislation authorizes federal health agencies to address problem gambling and appropriates $71 million in grants.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, is one of three Connecticut lawmakers co-sponsoring the House version of the bill, he said.

For information on the legislation, visit www.ncpg.org.

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