America is producing an entire generation of young people unaware of the dangers of gambling.
Experts say gambling at colleges and universities has reached epidemic proportions and that an ever-larger pool of children from the elementary grades through high school are turning to dice, cards, lotteries, and - if they can get in - casinos as a perceived ticket to prestige and fortune.
"It is festering at the high school level and an epidemic at college," says Edward Looney, director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey Inc.
Most forms of gambling such as lotteries, casinos, and high-stakes bingo are restricted to those age 18 or 21. But such laws have done little to prevent kids from organizing their own games of chance, playing poker at the back of the school bus, placing a wager on the weekend football game, or even flipping quarters for lunch money.
It is a reflection of the growing public acceptance of gambling as a form of entertainment rather than vice, experts say. That acceptance is driven, at least in part, by highly seductive advertisements for state-sponsored lotteries such as the recent $295 million Powerball jackpot.
In the same way that some teens are drawn to alcohol and tobacco, they are also drawn to gambling. But there is one big difference, experts say. Today, there is widespread recognition among parents, teachers, policy makers, and others of the dangers of alcohol and tobacco consumption by teens and children. In contrast, similar recognition does not yet exist about the long-term detrimental effects of gambling by teens, experts say.
"Adults don't know the dangers," says Elizabeth George, executive director of the North American Training Institute, an education arm of the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling. "Our young people are at an elevated risk, and there is very little public awareness."
Some parents seeking to provide alcohol-free social events for teens have organized casino nights in school gyms. Compulsive gambling counselors cringe at the idea. They say some teens face just as high a risk from gambling as from drinking. "The attitude is that gambling isn't that big a deal," Mr. Looney says. "Let me tell you it is a bigger deal."
A recent survey in Vermont found that 53 percent of students in junior and senior high school had participated in some form of gambling within the past year. Of those students, 7 percent reported personal problems caused by their gambling - an early warning of possible future addiction to gambling.
Dr. Elizabeth Goodman, a researcher at Harvard Medical School's Children's Hospital in Boston, says the study found that students who participated in gambling were more likely to engage in other risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, drinking and driving, fighting, carrying a weapon, and sexual activity.
On a national level, the statistics are more alarming. Roughly two-thirds of all students from ages 12 to 18 are gambling, experts say, and roughly 90 percent of high school seniors have gambled at least once.
In some cases teen bookies are turning over their daily take to organized crime families that capitalize on what they see as a growth industry. "There is not a high school in the US where kids are not making book [gambling] on sports events," says Durand Jacobs, a professor of psychiatry at the Loma Linda University Medical School in Riverside, Calif. Mr. Jacobs has studied teen gambling for many years. He says his studies show that currently 1 in 7 student gamblers are reporting serious gambling-related problems.