The photo above was taken in the parking lot of the Casino Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario Canada.
Acknowledging the reality that children are routinely abandoned in casino parking lots, Senator Jack Hart (First Suffolk) of the Senate Ways and Means Committee has suggested that legislation to expand gambling in Massachusetts include requirements for video camera surveillance in casino lots and parking garages.
When he heard about the two children left in a Foxwoods casino parking garage last week I wondered if Senator Hart’s first thought was, “See… there you go. The system works.”
Except it doesn’t.
Police reports across the county show that children are not only abandoned in casino parking lots while their parents or caregivers gamble – they’re also being locked in trunks, abandoned in hotel corridors, in shopping malls, and in cars on side streets around casinos and slot parlors. In searing heat and freezing cold, many of these children, if found at all, require emergency care, often having to be “revived” at the scene. And these are only the cases that make it to the news – and don’t count the young children and infants left home alone.
“He didn’t realize that an hour had passed. He was only going to run in for about 10 minutes. And he seemed to think it was okay to leave the air conditioning on and leave his child in the car — which obviously is not acceptable — and 10 minutes turned into an hour.”
—Phila. Man Accused of Leaving Tot in Car to Go Gambling
The root of the problem is the misunderstood epidemic of slot machine addiction.
Unlike alcohol or tobacco, the modern slot machine is a product that cannot be used in the home. The consumer must go to the slot machine. In the case of the parent, day care provider or other caregiver, this aspect of gambling addiction can and does have tragic consequences that won’t be eliminated with video cameras.
Slot machines account for 70 – 80 % of all casino revenue. For this reason you’d be hard pressed to find a casino without slots anywhere on the East Coast. Table games simply don’t bring in the kind of money that the good-old one-arm bandit rakes in for casino owners and state coffers. Except the machines don’t have the ‘one arm’ any more – and they’re anything but old. They’ve been replaced with buttons and interactive screen displays, and even allow you to have a meal or drink delivered right to you at the machine so that you never have to leave.
But the ‘bandit part’ is still accurate. In the 1980’s, an inventor came up with a new type of slot machine – one that was run by a microchip – determining whether the player had won or lost, not by a spinning wheel, but by a random number generator that determined whether you were a winner or loser the millisecond you pressed the button.
At first, even Las Vegas casino owners opposed the slot new machines. They’d worked hard to shed their Bugsy Siegel image, after all. The president of Bally Gaming wrote to the Nevada Gaming Board that “It would appear to us that if a mechanical reel on a slot machine possesses four sevens and it is electronically playing as if there were one seven, the player is being visually misled.”
In other words, the new machines were the equivalent of loaded dice. But once they learned how much money there was to be made from electronic loaded dice, casino owners stopped complaining. And over the years, slot manufacturers adapted the machines to encourage players to play even faster, longer, and for larger wagers than ever. Ergonomics, visuals, sounds, buttons instead of levers, credit cards and slot club cards instead of coins, bonus rounds, rapid-fire pay outs, deceptively programmed near-wins, machines engineered to allow the player to play more intensively – and to lose faster.
An MIT professor, Natasha Schull, has studied the way slot machines cause addictive behavior, and has a book coming out soon. Dr. Hans Breiter, of Mass. General and Harvard Medical has studied the way this different type of addiction effects the brain, and says it compares more accurately, not to nicotine, alcohol or marijuana, but with crack cocaine. Schull has demonstrated how slots can put certain players into a “machine zone” where nothing else matters. According to Breiter, if you’re going to legalize slots, you may as well legalize other narcotics.
Perhaps their work brings us a step closer in understanding how slot machines lead to so many cases of child abandonment and neglect, and why signs and surveillance cameras are needed in casino parking lots.
Not that children of gambling addicts fare any better at home. Studies have shown that at least 10 percent of children of gambling addicts suffer physical abuse at the hands of the pathological gambler in their lives.
Each year, squadrons of planes cover swaths of our state with pesticides to kill mosquitoes in the hopes for preventing even one case of EEE or West Nile. The Legislature responds with palpable concern to our demands for consumer protections on toys, text messaging, and ATVs. But when it comes to slot machine addiction and the devastating toll it takes on children and families – we inexplicably settle for video cameras, casino banishment, treatment and parking lot warning signs.
Both Schull and Breiter have testified at various State House hearings four times in the last three years about their findings, but the legislature continues to forge ahead with plans to build casinos and possibly slot parlors.
They concede that most people who try illegal narcotics do not develop into drug addicts, and the great majority of people who play slots can gamble without developing a problem – but it’s exactly those who do develop problems who account for 90% of the slot revenue. Meaning that pathological and problem gamblers are a casino’s target demographic.
Which might explain why the House barely passed amendment 327, which would prevent casinos from marketing to those who voluntarily place themselves on a self-exclusion list – the very people that sign in the picture was created for. In fact, some of the 76 legislators who voted against it are slated to become members of the Conference Committee to hash out the details of a new gambling bill.
The Senate’s draft gambling bill would also give casinos an exception to the State’s gambling smoking ban. Which means that before the industry even arrives in the Bay State it’s already been blessed with corporate bailout, designed to increase their earnings at the expense of the working class – casino employees.
Oddly enough, the gambling industry has never disputed anything Schull or Breiter have said. I’ve often wondered if perhaps it has been merely waiting for the rest of the world to catch on, for the shoe to drop, for an astute legislature to catch on and the gravy train to come to an end.
Much like the chief of BP, who woefully insisted recently that his company cared about all the ‘small people’ – the same ones they’d incidentally also placed in harm’s way for profit, without any clear idea of how to prevent a potential mishap of this magnitude – our leadership will bear the responsibility, perhaps even liability, for the consequences proliferating an unusually addictive product.
Because, unlike their predecessors in other states, Massachusetts legislators
have had the benefit of hearing expert testimony regarding the dangers of the modern slot machine.
The work of Schull and Breiter has finally begun to garner national attention, and earlier this year, a professor at the University of Wisconsin published her own book detailing her quest to understand her own slot machine addiction.
Certainly, the management of BP has their excuses for not listening to the warnings oil rig workers who warned them of impending dangers, just as members of the legislature justify their own reasons for ignoring experts and the regional leaders, community activists and members of the grassroots who sat through a 7 hour hearing for just 3 minutes to speak, while allowing paid lobbyists and casino developers to jump ahead in line and talk as long as they liked.
But someday, in better times, low-wage job creation, chairmanships and special interests may perhaps sound as hollow as the excuses of BP execs do now, especially when signs like the one above start showing up within our own borders.
Elsewhere, in parts of the world that did not have the benefit of Schull and Breiter’s sober advice before expanding gambling, they’ve been keeping count. Twenty-three children in 2 years were found abandoned at British Columbia casinos – or almost one per month. Sixty-eight in 4 years in Illinois. Seventy-two in a 14-month period in Indiana. Those were the ones that were found.
In the meantime, according to a press release for the 2009 Global Gaming Expo – slot machine manufacturers steadfastly continue to accelerate “Value for the Operator” while taking “Gaming to the Next Level”.
Happy Fathers Day, Massachusetts.