Image: Woman gambling
Mel Evans  /  AP file
More than 2 million people in the U.S. are pathological gamblers, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C. Between nearly 5 million and 7 million more adult have serious gambling problems, and perhaps 15 million more are at risk.
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/30/2009 9:08:29 AM ET 2009-01-30T14:08:29

The last time he bet on the Super Bowl, back in 1996, the U.S. economy was booming, unemployment was 5.6 percent and Pittsburgh was playing Dallas.

Even then, with all the odds in his favor, the longtime compulsive gambler discovered that the stakes were too high.

“I won the bet but I lost my integrity, I lost my self-respect,” said Robert G., who follows the Gamblers Anonymous support group practice of withholding his full name. “My life was a mess.”

So the 58-year-old Los Angeles marketing executive can imagine the dire times that await gamblers in the current financial climate, when there are early fears that a tumbling economy may propel more people into addiction.

“People are going to take shots who would not have taken shots,” the gambler said.

On the eve of what some regard as the peak of the gambling season — the Super Bowl and the March Madness college basketball tournament — industry experts echo that view, speculating that even as gambling revenues plummet in this economic downturn, the proportion of problem and pathological gamblers could rise.

“A whole lot more people are under stress,” said Bill Eadington, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno, and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming. “On that basis, I would expect we probably are seeing more problem gambling than we would under different circumstances.”

Desperate times
People desperate because of record layoffs, home foreclosures and failing investments may turn to gambling as a last resort, said Jeffrey Marotta, a researcher who runs a consulting business, Problem Gambling Solutions Inc. in Portland, Ore. And a fraction of those people may be more prone to problem behaviors or addiction.

“There may be a decrease in general revenues, but more problem gamblers,” he said.

That notion is hotly disputed by the American Gaming Association, a Washington, D.C. industry trade group, which notes that the proportion of problem gamblers in society has remained steady for decades, through good times and bad.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know where they’re getting that,” said Holly Thomsen, a spokeswoman for the AGA. “I don’t know that there’s any evidence. They’re making a speculation that has no basis in fact.”

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2.3 million in U.S. are compulsive gamblers
In any given year, about 1 percent of American adults — or some 2.3 million people — are pathological gamblers addicted to the risk and excitement of the wager, according to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C.

Another 2 percent or 3 percent — between nearly 5 million and 7 million adults — have serious gambling problems, and perhaps 15 million more are at risk, exhibiting at least two recognized symptoms of problem gambling.

That rate has remained about the same since researchers first began studying problem gambling prevalence three decades ago, but there’s concern that it may be creeping up, Whyte said.

“The rate is so low, even a 50 percent rise is only a tiny fraction,” he added.

There’s no data yet to support that theory, the experts acknowledge, partly because the economic decline has been so sudden and swift. Between 2007 and 2008, revenues in the nearly $100-billion-a-year national gaming industry slumped by 5 percent to 10 percent overall, including a sharp drop last fall, when popular meccas like Las Vegas saw a 26 percent drop in October alone, said Eadington, who tracks the industry.

The decline coincided, of course, with the near-collapse of the nation’s economy, including rising unemployment, increasing home foreclosures and plummeting stock values.

But the psychology that undergirds the addiction argues in favor of an increase in the proportion of problem gamblers. For one thing, compulsive gamblers, those least able to control their urges, don’t stop gambling in a downturn.

“The pathological gambler is going to gamble always,” noted Bruce Roberts, executive director of the California Council on Problem Gambling in Anaheim, Calif.

For them, the lure is not about money, but about the rush of excitement that accompanies the action, said Whyte. “It’s not just the outcome, it’s the gamble,” he said.

'It beats everything'
That is certainly true for John F., a 57-year-old recovering gambler who regularly attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Fallon, Nev. He figures he lost at least $250,000 during his 35-year addiction, and many jobs, relationships and opportunities, all for a thrill that’s hard to explain.

“For me, gambling is the most pleasurable thing there is,” said the telephone company worker who also runs his own ranch. “It beats everything.”

Those whose problems fall short of compulsion might find they can’t stop gambling because of another common trait: They think they’re smart enough and skilled enough to recoup their losses — eventually.

“There are actually people who think they can be a good slot player, a good lottery player,” Roberts said.

Gambling on the Super Bowl
And there are many, many gamblers who profess skill during the biggest gambling events of the year, the Super Bowl and the basketball tournament known as March Madness.

Last year, Super Bowl wagers in Nevada topped $92.1 million, while the month-long March Madness bets totaled about $238 million, according to the state’s gaming control board.

“We know that for a lot of sports gamblers, the Super Bowl is the chance, however much they’re down, it’s their last chance to make it up,” Whyte said.

Researchers plant to track enrollment in gambling treatment programs, calls to gambling hotlines and other sources to monitor whether problem gambling actually does rise as the downturn continues.

One measure might be a surge in attendance at Gamblers Anonymous, which logs 20,000 members in the U.S. and some 35,000 worldwide, according to a spokeswoman.

For Robert G., the group has been the key to coping with an addiction that can only be controlled, not cured. He encourages other gamblers to look up a nearby meeting and go.

“I found amazing people and my life got pretty damn good,” he said, citing a happy marriage, two kids and a successful career.

The memory of that relapse in 1996 still haunts him, but that doesn’t mean he’ll avoid Sunday’s matchup between the Steelers and the Cardinals.

“I’m rooting for Pittsburgh,” he said, “with no money.”

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