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Kathleen M. Scanlan and Charles Sarkis

Helping those whom gambling hurts

WITH THE prospect of expanded gambling in Massachusetts comes an expanded responsibility to protect those who should not or can not gamble safely.

For the majority of people who play the lottery or go to a racetrack or casino, gambling is a form of entertainment, like a movie or sporting event -- something that is paid for with discretionary income rather than the mortgage or grocery money. But surveys, including one by the Harvard Medical School, show that 6 percent of the population has trouble with gambling at some point in their lives and 4 percent -- 250,000 people in our state -- report that in the past year they have had problems controlling their urge to gamble. These lives need to be considered in any gambling debate.

Massachusetts sponsors, endorses, and promotes gambling, and there is a lot of excitement in the talk of new revenues to the state that expanded gambling could bring back from casinos and racetracks in Rhode Island and Connecticut. But we also need to address the unintended negative consequences if gambling is expanded in Massachusetts.

What about the wife whose husband re mortgages their home to spend the money gambling? How do we stop a family from being torn apart every time the father loses at the track? How do we safeguard businesses from being victims of embezzlement when one of their employees steals from their coffers to finance a gambling habit? Currently, Massachusetts residents who want casino gambling are going out of state to find it. If they develop a problem with gambling, they bring it back to Massachusetts. While funding from the Massachusetts State Lottery and the Massachusetts Racing Commission has been allocated since 1987 to provide compulsive gambling education and treatment, if this state is to pursue casino gambling, slot machines at racetracks, or some other form of expanded gambling intended to keep revenues in state, we must also build into that expansion funding and regulations aimed at helping those whom gambling hurts.

The Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, which is funded by the state from lottery and race track funds, has been providing help to problem gamblers and their families for nearly a quarter century. The need is clear: The council's website receives 265 visits a day, and more than 26,000 Massachusetts residents have been referred to treatment programs and counseling through the council's 24-hour helpline. The council leads public awareness and prevention campaigns, provides education and outreach to schools and community organizations, trains counselors who treat people with gambling problems, conducts surveys on gambling habits, and develops specialized educational materials for groups that are particularly vulnerable to gambling addiction.

Currently, that funding is not on par with other states. Massachusetts has one of the most successful lotteries in the nation, yet in a 2005-2006 national survey of publicly funded problem gambling services in the United States, the Commonwealth ranked 19th in per capita expenditures to address problem gambling. The Massachusetts per capita expenditure of 12 cents compares poorly to the $1.90 per capita committed by Delaware, the state ranked number one.

Problem gambling services that stand out as model programs are Canadian.

Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba provide significant prevention, intervention, treatment, and research activities along with products, programs and processes. The average percent of government gaming revenue in Canada committed to problem gambling is 1.1 percent.

If Massachusetts hosts large-scale gambling facilities, legislators need to require:

  • A percentage of new gambling revenues be dedicated to helping compulsive gamblers.

  • Employer training at Massachusetts gambling facilities so workers can recognize problem gambling and refer problem gamblers for help.

  • Gambling facilities to offer education materials on compulsive gambling on websites and, most important, at their facilities within easy reach of the gambler.

  • All gambling facilities to have a certified trained compulsive gambling counselor on site during all open hours.

  • A "statewide self-exclusion list" in which admitted compulsive gamblers give their name to gambling outlets and agree they are legally barred from the facility.

    These steps aren't cheap. But the state of Massachusetts and casino and racetrack owners stand to gain enormously through expanded gambling. It is incumbent on them to use some of those gains to help those for whom gambling is a problem too difficult to overcome alone.

    Kathleen M. Scanlan is executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. Charles Sarkis is the owner of the Back Bay Restaurant Group and Wonderland Greyhound Park.