New Englanders take note: planning for the first full-service casino in Massachusetts is underway. No longer will poker-happy Bostonians have to make the 100-mile pilgrimage to Foxwoods, Connecticut to get their game on. The Expanded Gaming Act authorizes three full resort casinos and one slots facility to be built across the Commonwealth (yes, that’s a thing) and promises to create thousands of jobs and over $300 million in revenue. Unfortunately it also means compulsive gamblers will be that much closer to the casinos that pull them in “like a magnet.” Those are the words recovering gambling addict Andrew used on radio station WBUR to describe his habit.
The Betting Drug
If you’re at all dubious that gambling is a real addiction, as all-consuming and life-ruining as liquor or pills, check out Andrew’s description of his addicted mindset: “For me, my job was the casino. Whatever I was doing in corporate America was just there to collect a paycheck for my bankroll. My job was to be a poker player. And I chased that dream deep, deep down a hole that I thought I would never get out of.”
Since attending his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting, Andrew has only gambled once. But unlike AA meetings, GA meetings aren’t a dime a dozen; there are just 54 each week in the entire state of Massachusetts. And professional treatment is even harder to come by: only 12 state-funded outpatient treatment centers employ gambling specialists, and most are in eastern cities, leaving large parts of the state in the dark.
Gambling: Common Addiction, Sparse Treatment
The dearth of treatment options is troubling considering the correlation between gambling addiction and casino accessibility. Studies have shown that problem gambling is nearly twice as common within a 50-mile radius of casinos as in outlying areas, and living 10 miles from a casino boosts a person’s odds of developing a gambling problem by 90%. (That makes sense: if I’d had to drive 50 miles to get loaded, I wouldn’t have gotten hooked as fast. Then again, I probably would have just moved.)
Doing Their Research
The Massachusetts electorate is understandably divided about plopping a bunch of businesses traditionally associated with gangster movies onto their home turf. After all, this is a state where liquor isn’t sold on Sunday morning and Happy Hour has been banned since 1984—and yet its capital is still America’s drunkest city. A group of activists has drummed up substantial support for a repeal of the law.
To its credit, Massachusetts is making an unprecedented effort to prevent its casinos from ruining people’s lives. The state is pouring five million a year into research on the social and economic repercussions of legal casinos. The gaming commission and researchers at UMass Amherst are currently conducting a baseline study to determine the “before” statistics on problem gambling. The law also includes a Responsible Gaming Framework requiring casinos to have on-site centers providing advice and referrals for those concerned about their gambling. Another requirement is a self-exclusion program, which lets people request to be banned from the casino. But these programs haven’t been successful barriers for true addicts like Andrew, who continue to return even under threat of arrest.
A Deadly Card Game
Gambling addiction is not just a game. Ask social worker Victor Ortiz of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. “One in five individuals who has been identified who has a gambling disorder also attempts suicide,” Ortiz explained to WBUR. “This is a very complicated disorder that’s very interconnected to both mental health and substance abuse.” He laments the lack of funding to train specialists in problem gambling.
Fortunately, another of the law’s provisions requires casino operators to pay a shared five million into a public health trust fund, which will also receive five percent of gaming revenue. This money will expand treatment availability throughout the state, but will it be enough to counteract the allure of the shiny new casinos? For gambling addicts, it seems like a stacked deck.
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