BOSTON — CHARLIE started gambling when he was 10, flipping coins with his friends at a school near Boston. After school it was cards. He bet lunch money, or dollar bills lifted from his grandmother's purse. Later he stole cameras from tourists.
By his late teens, Charlie (not his real name) says thousands of dollars went through his hands. "I'd bet on anything," he says, struggling to pay debts. "The money wasn't important; it was the action of doing it."
Studies indicate that Charlie and an estimated 1 million United States teenagers have become compulsive gamblers. In a society in which public policy encourages gambling, 7 million young people have gambled in some fashion. And the numbers are rising.
Sociologists are alarmed by studies saying teenagers are four times as likely to gamble as adults. In Atlantic City, N.J., the casinos report that 280,000 teenagers were denied entrance last year, and another 29,000 were removed from the casinos.
"We have found that 1 out of 2 high school teenagers have gambled for money in the last 12 months," says Durand Jacobs, a clinical psychologist at Loma Linda University in Riverside, Calif., who has studied teenage gambling for a decade. "And 1 out of 10 are experiencing serious gambling-related problems."
At the college level, where gambling rings are common, studies indicate that from 6 to 8 percent of students could be problem gamblers.
Kathleen Scanlon, program director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, says that the average age of people attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings is falling. "It used to be men and women in their 40s and 50s. Now it's in their 20s and 30s, and most of them say they started as teenagers."
In most states the legal age to gamble is 18. In others it is 21. "Laws against minors participating in gambling," Mr. Jacobs says, "have not been enforced just about anywhere in the country. Often it is parents or older relatives who introduce kids to gambling."
"Gambling is now a national pastime," says Jean Falzon, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Awareness grows
"Teenage gambling has always been there, but unacknowledged," she says. "Our awareness is becoming greater now. As more kids look for excitement and fun, they hear of the dangers of drugs, alcohol, AIDS, and teenage pregnancies. What is safe in their minds is gambling."
For Pat Fowler, project director for the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, says promotion of lottery, horse racing, or bingo, leads "young people to think it is OK to do."
In Minnesota, the only state with a compulsive-gambling-prevention project for adolescents, playing cards is the most popular form of gambling for teenagers, says Betty George, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling.
She says, "The question kids - whose parents are out of town - have is: How many tables can we set up in the living room and get a big poker game going?"
The council's efforts to educate Minnesotans about the dangers of gambling are aimed at parents, educators, and teenagers, many of whom are unaware of the risks involved, or have never examined the consequences of gambling in society.
"One school had casino nights for adults," Ms. George says, "but the teachers didn't want the kids going out and driving and drinking. To keep them safe, they brought in poker machines and showed the kids how to gamble. Of course, they loved it."
But after a council representative gave a presentation at the school about gambling, the teachers were appalled at their decisions. "It makes perfect sense," says George. "You wouldn't have a kiddie cocktail night and teach a kid how to shake a martini. It's the same with gambling."
The Minnesota Legislature allocated $600,000 to the council in 1989 for a small program in the north of the state. "We did a prevalence study," says George, "and found that 6.3 percent of the kids between 15 and 18 were problem gamblers, and another 19.9 percent were at risk." Funding was increased the next year to $1.4 million.
"Organizations involved in gaming," says George, "should be involved in helping with solutions for teenage gambling. If they aren't, they may be contributing to their own demise."
Jacobs says he believes the increase in teenage compulsive gambling is a product-safety issue.
"This is not a moral issue," he claims. "States and industries that promote gambling must tell the public that it may be dangerous to a person's health." Some solutions proposed
He advocates toll-free telephone lines for call-in help, treatment programs, widespread prevention campaigns, and mental- health professionals at schools.
In Atlantic City, casinos this year started a public-awareness campaign to discourage underage gamblers. The effort includes public-service announcements on MTV and scholarship money for students posters aimed at underage gamblers.
Experts disagree as to why some teenagers gamble and stop, while others are unable to stop. George says she thinks that issues of "unresolved grief" play a big part in problem gamblers.
"It could be the death of a parent, a divorce," she says. "It seems as though people who are addicted to one thing or another have a gaping hole inside them, and they fill it with alcohol, drugs, or gambling. We need to find out what the hole is about, or they could stop gambling and start drinking to fill it."