PLACE your bet against drugs. That's the message some schools and youth organizations are sending to teenagers by sponsoring casino nights as drug prevention activities or antidrug fundraisers. When Andover High School in Andover, Mass., held a ``Gaming Night'' as an antidrug activity last year, some members of the community criticized the sponsors for promoting one addictive behavior to replace another. Their concerns may well be valid.
According to a number of people who track trends in youth behavior, gambling-related problems are overtaking drug addiction as the most prevalent problem among teenagers.
``We will face in the next decade or so more problems with youth gambling then we'll face with drug use - particularly illicit drug use,'' says Howard Shaffer, director of the Center for Addiction Studies in Cambridge, Mass.
In fact, the 10th annual study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research recently found that illicit drug use has decreased among young people (see story Page 13).
``There's now ... social pressure to avoid illicit drug use. But simultaneously there is tremendous social pressure to gamble and to participate in the lottery,'' says Dr. Shaffer.
Durand F. Jacobs, a psychologist who has done extensive research on teenage gambling, calls gambling ``the growing addiction of the 1990s.'' According to Dr. Jacobs, ``The favorite bet for high schoolers is the lottery.'' Although it is illegal for people under 18 to buy lottery tickets in most states, enforcement is generally lax. California has thousands of automated lottery ticket vendors, says Jacobs. ``It's kind of like the cigarette machines where nobody's monitoring the sale of cigarettes to juveniles.''
Young people are also getting into casinos where the legal age for admission is 21; some of the underaged gamblers are even treated to complimentary mixed drinks. According to officials at the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, 230,000 underage wagerers were denied entry to Atlantic City's 11 licensed casinos last year. An additional 23,000 minors were escorted out of casinos.
The few existing studies of youth gambling provide cause for concern. ``Typically the numbers have shown that there are higher rates of gambling among youth than there are in the general adult population,'' says William C. Phillips, coordinator of counseling services at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. Dr. Phillips has studied gambling among college students at nine colleges in six states: Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Nevada, and California.
His study found that 87 percent of the students have gambled at some point in their lives. More surprisingly, 26 percent gamble weekly and 11 percent said they have gambled more than $100 in one day, with amounts ranging up to $50,000 in one week. Of those surveyed, 5.7 percent met the criteria to be described as ``pathological gamblers.'' That figure averages about 2 to 3 percent of the adult population.
HENRY LESIEUR, associate professor of sociology at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., conducted a study of junior and senior high school students. His findings are strikingly similar to the study of college students. Percentages of teenagers ranking as ``pathological'' or ``compulsive'' gamblers - people who have lost control of their gambling activity - average around 5 percent of the teenage population nationwide.
An ``experimentation factor'' may help explain why youth gambling problems are three times the adult rate, says Dr. Lesieur. Some researchers suggest that young people will ``mature out'' of gambling behaviors.
Jacobs is skeptical about this possibility. ``I have many reservations because the environment is being more and more invaded by gambling activities.'' Thirty-two states and Washington have state-supported, actively promoted lotteries, he says.
``What we've got is a tremendous love affair with gambling right now in the United States,'' says Jacobs. ``And, of course, the basis for the love affair is that government officials are afraid to bite the bullet and raise taxes so they're using this as a form of revenue gathering.''
As fiscal problems confront states, legislatures are looking more and more toward gambling to generate revenue. Ironically, some states use gambling revenues to finance education.
``When you finance education with the lottery there is somehow the belief that the better the lottery goes, the better the educational system is doing,'' says Lesieur. He wonders why the public is so silent on this issue: ``If the states that run liquor stores promoted alcohol the way that they promote lottery tickets, what would the public say?'' He quickly answers his own question: ``They'd be up in arms.''