Nevada weighs help for problem gamblers

States - even this one - increasingly spend money to help those addicted to chance.

Frankie Suarez knows that had things worked out differently, she'd be comfortably retired now and finally taking those European vacations her husband, Tony, had promised her. Instead, she's still working in her late 60s, dishing out food at a hospital cafeteria and relying on those meager wages plus Social Security to pay her rent.

Tony Suarez shot himself to death in 1999, leaving behind a wrenching note apologizing for the disaster he'd made of their finances and their lives. His demise wasn't altogether a surprise; Mrs. Suarez watched helplessly as he took two years to squander their once considerable savings at the blackjack table of a nearby casino since they moved here in the mid-1990s from Baltimore.

"He had no control over it, I know that," she says quietly from the modest 600-square-foot apartment they moved into after the bank repossessed the 2,200-square-foot home they built in 1996. "I just wish we [had] understood the problem sooner. It all happened so fast. He had a problem and we did not know what to do. Neither of us wanted to admit what was happening."

The dark side of gambling - the urge to risk all again and again - has led to untold numbers of cases like that of the Suarez family. Such addiction is a nationwide problem, as much a part of gambling as bright lights and ivory dice. But it is particularly severe here in Nevada, and it is starting to draw attention from local leaders.

Addressing the problem

This year, in a move welcomed not just by gambling-addiction advocates but also by the casino industry itself, the governor has proposed $100,000 a year in his next two-year budget for treatment programs. Some state legislators plan to increase that figure to at least $1 million a year. And earlier this month, the state officially acknowledged the annual National Problem Gambling Awareness Week for the first time.

"I think we've just acclimated ourselves and grown accustomed to the problem but now we're realizing how it negatively impacts not only the image of gambling but other lives as well," says State Sen. Dennis Nolan, a Las Vegas Republican whose current bill would put $2 million into gambling-addiction treatment and prevention over the coming two years. "While Nevada has been the innovator of the gambling industry, this is one area [where] we've fallen behind."

If the legislature puts up any money for treatment, it will be the first time the Silver State has specifically earmarked anything for this problem despite a 74-year history of legalized gambling. Seventeen other states have already done so, led by Indiana spending $3.5 million and Illinois, Connecticut, Iowa, Louisiana, and Oregon each spending roughly $2 million a year. New Jersey, which is most similar to Vegas with its Atlantic City boardwalk, spends $700,000 a year. Such efforts are aimed at a daunting challenge.

A Nevada-funded study revealed in 2002 that 6.4 percent of the state's population were either pathological or problem gamblers. That's far ahead of the 2.7 percent of the national population found to have such addictions in a 1998 survey conducted by National Gambling Impact Study Commission, a panel appointed by Congress. While no comprehensive state-by-state statistics are available, similar studies in other states have shown rates of 2.1 percent in North Dakota and 4.9 percent in Mississippi, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

"One not unexpected result was that the prevalence rate in Nevada was higher than in virtually every other state that we looked at," said Rachel Volberg, a gambling-impact researcher based in Northampton, Mass., who spearheaded the Nevada study. "That obviously speaks to the impact of exposure."

All this comes as legalized gambling continues to spread. Only Hawaii and Utah have no form of gambling, and voters in Broward County, Fla., recently approved a measure to allow slot machines at racetracks and a jai-alai fronton in an effort to save the sinking parimutuel industry.

Gambling addiction stories are as common in Nevada as tornado tales are in Kansas. Senator Nolan, in fact, became an advocate for such treatment after seeing his wife's sister left destitute by her gambling-addicted husband. There are 100 meetings a week of Gamblers' Anonymous in Las Vegas, far more than in other regions, according to Gamblers Anonymous.

"Just about everybody in Nevada knows or has a story just like I have," Nolan says. "Somebody knows somebody who has a problem gambling. It's part of our life here."

The $200,000 proposed in the two-year budget of Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn comes as a result of Ms. Volberg's findings, said Guinn spokesman Greg Bortolin. He acknowledged it's not a large sum but insisted it's a start and that the governor believes the casino industry ought to be taking the lead on the matter.

Casinos as part of the solution

Yet most of the money currently spent on gambling treatment in Nevada does come from what some see as an unlikely source, the casino conglomerates themselves. Several have taken up the issue to demonstrate good corporate citizenship and soften gambling's shady image, says Station Casinos spokeswoman Lesley Pittman, whose company owns 10 non-Strip casinos that cater to local Las Vegans. Station Casinos donates about $250,000 a year to research and treatment programs, Ms. Pittman says.

Caesars Entertainment, which owns three resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, goes one step further, requiring all employees to report guests who have made comments that suggest they may be addicted to gambling or may be running into a serious financial or personal problem brought on by gambling. The casino maintains a list, now 2,500 name long, of customers who they suspect have gambling problems and who are no longer permitted to play in their casinos, said spokesman Robert Stewart. Also, a gambling addiction hotline near all ATMs and offers leaflets on the topic at every checkout counter.

"It's truly not good business to cater to problem gamblers because these are people whose addiction is progressive and will end in some destructive way," says Carol O'Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, whose $445,000 annual budget is largely funded by donations from casinos. "The problem gambler is not a long-term customer. He's not profitable. Ultimately he becomes a casualty."

While many praise Guinn and Nolan's effort, they also complain it's a fraction of what's necessary. Ron Lawrence, founder of the nonprofit Community Counselling Center in Las Vegas, estimates that 5 percent of his 5,000 clients a year have gambling problems and that he could use the $100,000 himself to hire about three more counselors to handle the burden.

"This is a drop in the bucket," says Mr. Lawrence, who suggests a more realistic figure for a state with Nevada's gambling problems would be $3 million a year. "We need much more. This is Nevada, after all."

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