Compulsive Gambling: Legislative logjams. Reform mired in red tape, public apathy

THERE are no undisputed statistics on the extent or impact of compulsive gambling in New Jersey because, for nearly six years, lawmakers have refused to fund a study of the problem. ``There's no question but that [casino gambling] is a powerful industry, wielding enormous influence in this state,'' says Joel Jacobsen, a member of the Casino Control Commission. He adds that, in that respect, it is no different from many other large, influential industries. Mr. Jacobsen sees no deliberate foot-dragging by state officials, but laments what he calls ``the bureaucratic morass of mediocrity in operation,'' stalemating efforts to get at the problem. The public's general indifference to the problem also stalemates progress. ``I don't think anybody's looked at it carefully,'' observes Casino Control Commissioner Carl Zeitz. ``It's not a burning issue.''

In Mr. Zeitz's opinion, it may be too late to get the state of New Jersey to take any substantive anti-gambling measures. The state gets 8 percent of its budget from gambling, he says, out of a total budget of $7.7 billion for 1985.

Assemblyman Chuck Hardwick called for a Department of Health study of compulsive gambling in July 1979. That proposal went nowhere. He tried again in 1980, 1981, and 1982. All of them languished in committee.

In 1983, Assembly Speaker Alan Cartcher introduced a bill similar to Mr. Hardwick's, calling for a $200,000 commission to study the social impact of gambling in the state. That bill was amended to include a study of the economic impact as well, and another $150,000 was added to the price tag.

It wasn't until February of this year that this bill was reported out of committee. Almost immediately, it was referred to another committee; and a spokesman for the speaker predicted that the bill will not come out of committee until at least mid-June.If the study is undertaken, another 18 months will pass before figures are available.

It has taken years of debate and pressure to get such legislation considered, and it may never be implemented.

These proposals face tough lobbying from the casinos. And at least two sources close to the legislative process charge that a hidden lobby -- of banks, insurance companies, real estate interests doing business with the casinos -- swings considerable weight.

``Every single time the Legislature starts to confront gambling, we feel the awesome presence of the casino lobby, and the proposal goes nowhere,'' says one New Jersey legislator.

The legislator's observation seems to be borne out by critics of casino gambling, those attempting to get the state to address problems of compulsive gambling, and some officials who simply want to see the gaming industry better regulated.

Aside from the small slogan the Casino Control Commission mandates on all on-site casino advertising -- ``Bet with your head, not over it'' -- the casinos are virtually silent on the subject. ``We have no comment on compulsive gambling,'' a representative of Caesars Palace told the Monitor.

Some positive signs do appear on the horizon, however. After a recent meeting of the Atlantic City Casino and Hotel Association's board of directors, the organization's president, Tom Carver, indicated that the casinos are exploring possible ways of funding efforts to help compulsive gamblers, including a possible contribution to the Council on Compulsive Gambling.

``We don't think that we are the cause of the problem,'' Mr. Carver observed. ``But it's clear that the variety of gaming opportunities in the state presents a problem for some people. We'll work with the council to make sure we're fulfilling our social responsibilities.''

This is seen as a step in the right direction, but casino inaction about compulsive gambling has not been as worrisome to some critics as the direct action they take in lobbying against measures designed to help compulsive gamblers.

``My impression was that the compulsive gambling problem was not a priority of the state or the casinos,'' says Robert B. Sturgess, recalling his tenure as director of the division of Gaming Enforcement.

Carl Zeitz worries that New Jersey has passed the point at which it could begin to roll back the problems already created by gambling here. ``People ask, `What is the point of no return?' Well, we've passed it,'' says Zeitz. ``Having let [casino gambling] in the way we did, we created a major industry. . . . So, we have to adapt.''

If ``adapting'' means at least getting some sense of what the voters have wrought in adopting legalized gambling, the process is likely to take a long time. It has taken years to get enough money from the state to fund the Council on Compulsive Gambling and the state's one outpatient treatment center.

One state legislator characterizes the $200,000 the state spends to help compulsive gamblers as ``money to quiet the critics.'' To Hardwick and others, the efforts so far amount to a sandbag against a Mississippi River torrent.

But there is some progress. Some New Jersey legislators are beginning to recognize that it's as hard for a compulsive gambler to stop gambling as it is for an alcoholic to stop drinking. A few years ago, when Chuck Hardwick proposed a $30,000 study of compulsive gambling, an influential legislator replied, ``But, Chuck, tell 'em to quit gambling.''

``Nobody says that anymore,'' Hardwick observes.

Last of a series: Previous articles appeared June 4 and 6.

The small crowd of people milling around a dimly lit parking lot outside a Jewish center here look like they could be members of a wedding or some social club exchanging handshakes and small talk. In fact, they are, one and all, recovering compulsive gamblers and their spouses, getting together to set their lives right. They have come to one of the few places in this state where they can get help.

Aside from the John F. Kennedy outpatient treatment center in Edison, the Veteran Administration Hospital in Lyons, and the 51 tiny Gamblers Anonymous groups around the state, there is nowhere in New Jersey for compulsive gamblers to go.

Last year 483 gamblers showed up at the Atlantic City Salvation Army, admitting that they had lost all their money in the casinos and asking for transportation home. Another 529 came in saying they had missed their charter bus; and many of these were probably gamblers. An unknown number lied, saying that they were robbed or otherwise lost their money. The Salvation Army provides such people transportation home the first time. Thereafter, if the people have not paid back the organization, gamblers often get nowhere. Eventually, families and employers refuse to help, and they are directed to a public shelter on the dilapidated outskirts of town.

It's generally at this point that compulsive gamblers reach for the gambling hot line started two years ago here in New Jersey; and, eventually, they wind up in meetings like the one in Sayerville.

One man at this meeting remembers dancing the traditional first dance with his daughter at her wedding: she whispered in his ear, ``Thank God you're not gambling anymore, Daddy,'' and he knew that he still was.

What is needed for such people, according to Arnold Wexler and others involved in repairing broken lives, is widespread attention to the problem, hard research on the dimensions of it, stricter controls on the gaming industries, and a recognition that compulsive gambling is a disease, just as alcoholism and drug addiction are.

The proof that compulsive gamblers can be helped comes from hundreds of recovering people, telling how they rebuilt their lives and their families. One of them, who had abandoned his wife and children for gambling, recalls the evidence of this rebuilding in a note his daughter left on a pillow for him:

``Daddy, I love you so much. I missed you. And I'm so glad you're with us.''

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