NEW YORK — Championed as an engine of growth, legalized gambling has roared across the country in the last decade. In its wake it has left an unprecedented number of compulsive gamblers who annually cost the country tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity, stolen and embezzled funds, and unpaid taxes.
"As predicted, it has reached enormous proportions ... and we can't ignore it any longer," says Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, Md.
As a result, programs designed to help compulsive gamblers have sprung up nationwide, particularly in areas where gambling has recently been legalized. Gamblers Anonymous (GA), a 12-step self-help group, has doubled in size since 1989. The number of outpatient counseling services has also increased tenfold.
But the number of hospital-based in-patient services has actually declined. And experts say there are not nearly enough services to meet the demand. "Not by a long shot," says Sheila Blume, medical director of Chemical Dependency and Compulsive Gambling Programs at the South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y.
While it is impossible to identify the number of people who gamble compulsively, experts say it has kept pace with the growth of legalized gambling. Twenty years ago, only New Jersey and Nevada allowed high-stakes casino gambling. Today, it has spread to more than 30 states, and all but two, Utah and Hawaii, allow some form of legalized gambling.
As a result, a record number of Americans are putting down bets. The amount of money wagered has shot up from $17 billion in 1976 to $489 billion in 1995.
Experts say that between 4 and 6 percent of the people who gamble lose control - so much so, they become willing to lie, cheat, steal, and sacrifice their families just to put down a bet.
"I was kiting checks, charging up credit cards - I even contemplated robbing a bank - not behavior appropriate for the mother of two small children," says Karen H., now the international executive secretary of GA. "Thank God I was forced into it by my husband at the time."
GA is by far the largest provider of services to people with gambling problems. Supported only by members' contributions, the only requirement to join is a desire to stop gambling. Based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, GA members agree that they are powerless over their gambling and turn over their lives to "a power greater than ourselves." Through regular meetings, and sharing of experiences, GA operates as a "fellowship" where problem gamblers help each other into "recovery."
DAN B.'s experience is typical of many GA members. He had started gambling at age 13 and kept it up into adulthood. While he had gambled his family's savings away, gone deeply into debt, and even scammed some co-workers to pay for his habit, he had not stolen. At least, not until a bookie he owed $3,800 threatened his life.
"I was terrified, my head was spinning, every morning I'd look under the car for a bomb. I'd be trembling, sweating, and looking over my shoulder," he says.
The postmaster of a small town, Dan B. started writing out money orders and pocketing the cash. "In my sick head, I was only borrowing the money, I was going to pay it back," he says. Within three months, he had embezzled more than $40,000.
He was caught, sent to jail for six months, and put on probation for five years. That was 12 years ago. He is now in full recovery and still paying the money back.
Studies show that when compulsive gamblers go into treatment, their debts average $30,000 to $70,000. Ninety percent say they have committed a crime, such as check-kiting or stealing from employers. A Wisconsin study released last week found compulsive gamblers cost the community an average of $10,000 each. In other states, the costs have been calculated as high as $52,000 each. That includes such things as welfare for families and costs of prison time.
Most experts praise GA but say it is often only a partial solution and doesn't work for everyone. "GA doesn't even touch the tip of the iceberg," says a therapist who is a recovering compulsive gambler and asked that his name not be used. "It's a simple program for complicated people."
The National Council on Problem Gamblers in Washington, D.C., has begun training a record number of counselors to fill the need for individual therapy.
There are several different approaches. For instance, the program at The Donwood Institute in Toronto does not strive for total abstinence as does GA. "We try to meet the clients where they are," says James Milligan, Donwood's director of gambling services. "For example, if I'm ambivalent about stopping and have total abstinence imposed on me, it could be a set up for failure."
Counselors design what they believe are reasonable goals for the clients - say, gambling only a certain amount of money each week. The counselors help with financial planning and strategies to use when one feels overwhelmed by the desire to gamble. "The people who seem to be attracted to us have tried GA and haven't found it helpful," Mr. Milligan says.
In many states, such alternative treatments are not available. Experts say most states and private insurance companies have not stepped in to fill the gap in services because of a lack of education and understanding.
"The attitudes toward compulsive gambling are very much the same as they were toward alcoholism 50 years ago," says Joanna Franklin, executive vice president of the National Council of Problem Gambling. "Compulsive gamblers are seen as selfish and irresponsible." Only 18 states provide funding for education, prevention, and emergency help-line services, according to the National Council. Of those, only a handful also provide funds for treatment.
"Compulsive gamblers are usually deeply in debt, they tend not to have health insurance," says Dr. Lorenz. "But even those who do often find their insurance will only cover alcohol and drug addiction." As a result, compulsive gamblers, when they do go for treatment, often end up in substance-abuse programs, which Lorenz says are not appropriate.
With state governments raking in an estimated $11 billion annually from state lotteries and casinos, experts insist they should allocate more money to help compulsive gamblers.
"To my mind, most state governments have turned a purposeful blind eye to the casualties," Dr. Blume says. "The public has to know there are social [consequences] and just like with alcohol, if gambling is going to be legal we have to provide services for the people who suffer from it."
*The National Council on Problem Gambling Help Line is 800-522-4700.