Casino Gambling Surges in US, Tempting More Teenagers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A NEW gambling industry survey indicates that casino gambling has grown explosively in the United States.

Four years ago, only two states - New Jersey and Nevada - offered casino-style gambling. Now, 23 states offer the roll of dice and spinning roulette wheels. Another dozen states are considering legislation approving casinos.

According to the survey by Harrah's Casinos and the polling firm Yankelovich Partners, the number of ``household'' visits to casinos has almost doubled since 1990. In 1993, the number of visits was 92 million, up from 46 million visits in 1990. (A ``household'' visit, as defined in the survey, averages out to 1 1/2 persons from the same family.)

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Spokesmen in the industry now define gambling as ``entertainment'' and refer to it as the ``new American pastime'' because the number of people visiting casinos last year outnumbered total attendance at major league baseball games. ``The experience we want guests to have at a casino is enjoyment in an atmosphere that is not intimidating but memorable,'' says Bala Subramanian, corporate director for marketing information and planning for the Memphis-based Promus Company, the parent company of Harrah's.

Casino gambling, for years legal only in Nevada, has grown rapidly as states, cities, and Indian tribes have turned to gambling to try to generate economic development and jobs. Dozens of tribal reservations across the US now offer casino gambling, and riverboat casino gambling is legal in six states along the Mississippi.

Estimated casino revenue for 1993 is $12.9 billion, up from $8.3 billion in 1990. The Harrah's survey compiled results from a questionnaire developed by Home Testing Institute on Long Island, N.Y., and mailed to 100,000 households. From that mailing, 18,600 casino players were identified. Their responses were then combined with responses from 2,500 adults in an annual national survey of American values and attitudes by Yankelovich Partners.

Even though 51 percent of the adults in the survey said casino gambling is ``acceptable for anyone,'' the acceptance percentage declined by 4 percentage points from Harrah's 1992 survey. The 1993 survey attributes this decline to casino referendums in southern states that caused heated public debate about gambling.

Critics of gambling say its rapid growth in the US has a dark side, particularly among youngsters and teenagers. ``Kids today have grown up in an atmosphere where gambling is promoted by the state, churches, and synagogues, and the availability of it is everywhere,'' says Tom Cummings, director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.

``We are getting more and more calls from desperate high schools asking us to put on programs to help kids deal with gambling.'' A council study of the effects of illegal gambling on 3,000 students found that 32 percent of students who do not gamble said they felt their refusal to partake in it was not normal. ``There was tremendous peer pressure on them to gamble,'' Mr. Cummings says.

In 1992, some 280,000 teenagers were denied entrance to Atlantic City casinos, and another 29,000 were led out of the casinos. Harrah's Casinos has implemented ``Project 21'' to keep underage gamblers out of casinos by stopping them at the doors or ejecting them once inside.

A second program, ``Operation Bet Smart,'' includes posters around casino floors saying: ``Know when to stop before you start.''

Harrah's president, Phil Satre, told the National Press Club in Washington recently: ``Just like car manufacturers build safety devices into new automobiles, responsible casino operators must take action on the issue of problem gambling.... We are not in business to capitalize on compulsive behavior. We are in the business to entertain our customers.''

The problem is that gamblers lose money, Cummings says, ``and that is millions and millions of dollars diverted out of the mainstream economy. Somebody has to lose all that money.''

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