Atlantic City, N.J. — One afternoon recently, three young men who looked like teen-agers were stopped by a Monitor reporter as they left one of the premier gambling casinos here. The legal age for gambling here is 21; they were were 18, 19, and 20. Did they have any problem getting in?
``One place checked us [for identification], but with two others we had no problem,'' one of them said.
They are apparently not alone, as the casinos' own statistics show; and, if the experts are right, they are all playing a dangerous game.
New Jersey is busy ``breeding a generation of gamblers,'' says Robert J. Klein, former director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling. Many of them (no one can predict how many) will not be able to keep themselves from gambling, he says, and will wind up destroying their lives and those of the people they are close to. Family, friends, employers, and even the state will feel the cost, as compulsive gamblers borrow, embezzle, or steal to feed their addiction. If they cease to contribute as taxpayers and end up on welfare rolls or in penitentiaries, the cost goes even higher.
``Children in this state are growing up with the understanding that gambling is a perfectly acceptable form of social communion; and that I find bizarre,'' says Carl Zeitz, a member of the state's Casino Control Commission. ``But that is what we've done.''
Arnold Wexler, a nationally recognized expert on the subject, says the compulsive-gambling problem among young people here is serious, and it is growing: ``Fifteen to 20 percent of all people seeking help nationwide are under the age of 21, and the figure is undoubtedly higher in New Jersey, because of the widespread availability of gambling here.''
``It would be totally naive to assume that there are not juveniles gambling and consuming alcohol at the casinos,'' acknowledges Fred Gushin, supervising attorney for the state's Division of Gaming Enforcement. ``You're talking about incredibly high traffic areas.'' According to the Atlantic City Expressway Authority, 30 million people will visit Atlantic City this year, almost all of them drawn to the casinos.
Casino statistics show a rise from 12,000 to 18,000 in the number of minors evicted from casino floors during the first six months of 1984 over the same period in '83 and a jump from 65,000 to 81,000 in the number of youths turned away during the same period. No one knows how many young people stay in casinos, gambling unnoticed, but the figure is thought by some informed observers to be in the thousands.
It is difficult to gauge the extent of the problem.
Mr. Gushin reports that a task force from his office netted only a couple of hundred juveniles last year in sweeps of the casinos during the spring, summer, and fall. The problem had been exacerbated by a divergence in the legal ages for gambling and drinking in the state, until the gambling age was raised to 21 in April 1983. This still has not solved the basic problem of screening out young people from the thousands who stream through the casinos every month.
Their presence in the casinos is disturbing to those involved in helping compulsive gamblers.
``Ninety-six percent of all compulsive gamblers start gambling before the age of 14,'' observes Mr. Wexler, who is president of New Jersey's Council on Compulsive Gambling. ``When you allow kids to gamble at a casino or race track, you don't know which ones [are prone to becoming] compulsive gamblers. Once they get a big win -- and every compulsive gambler has had a big win -- you whet their appetites.''
Between the ages of 17 and 19, when teen-agers can most successfully pass themselves off as legally of age to gamble, they are ``most vulnerable'' to the gambling dream of ``instant success, instant happiness, instant worth,'' observes Dr. Robert Custer, a pioneer in the study of compulsive gambling. A sudden win, with its attendant false sense of power and luck, can leave them with ``an illusion they will carry all of their lives.''
A spokeswoman for the Caesars Palace casino told the Monitor that ``we have no problem with underage gamblers on the floor. . . . We have security guards who monitor the casino constantly.'' When presented with law-enforcement statistics showing that underage gamblers are frequently found in the casinos -- statistics compiled by New Jersey's Casino Control Commission and supplied by the casinos themselves -- she answered that she had no knowledge of such figures.
Compulsive gambling is ``becoming more of a chronic problem all around,'' observes Jack Eisenstein, superintendent of the Atlantic City school system. But he adds that it is ``not a problem in the school.''
``You can't put up 10 casinos and [have] all the glamour of the stars and not have kids come. It's a natural phenomenon,'' he acknowledges. But, he continues, school-age gambling is not a problem ``that has become identifiable.'' Other school officials contacted by the Monitor said the problem had not become pervasive enough to require school system action.
Mr. Klein sums up the government's attitude toward the problem bluntly: ``High school gambling is not being addressed. Period.''
Still, the doors of the city's high school open onto a view of the nearby Golden Nugget, and there is mounting evidence that many youngsters have succumbed to the lure of the gleaming, action-filled casino and its neighbors.