In the first two postings of this series (http://tiny.cc/BMG-Reason1 and http://tiny.cc/BMG-Reason2), I focused on why expanded gambling is more appropriately described as economic cannibalism, and not as economic development, and on how a gas tax costing an average Mass. household $8-10/month — the amount you’d lose in just a few minutes at a slot machine — would create just about as many construction and ripple effect jobs as casinos … and without the delays and costly “side effects.”
In this post, I’ll excerpt from a longer piece about what’s ethically wrong about hitching Massachusetts’ financial engine to expanded gambling, and focus on the empty promise of “treatment” for compulsive gambling. The full text of Reasons 3 & 4 is at http://tiny.cc/FiveReasons-NoO…
Reason # 3 – Government promotion of casino/slot-machine gambling to solve our economic and employment problems is as unethical and contrary to Mass. values as promoting smoking and binge drinking to increase sin tax revenues.
Even the legislators who are backing expanded legalized gambling acknowledge that it’s a path they wish the State didn’t have to go down. “We wouldn’t be considering this if the State weren’t in such desperate need of jobs,” they say. (To be clear, whether the discussion is about “destination casinos” or installing slot machines at race tracks, we’re still talking about the legalization and promotion of predatory slot machine gambling. Casinos are merely well-dressed slot machine warehouses. Slot machines typically provide about 80% of the income in casinos. And problem gamblers provide 70-90% of the revenue generated by slot machines.) If you haven’t read Dr. Natasha Dow Schüll’s analysis of the current generation of predatory slot machines, I’ve excerpted it and included a link under Reason #3 at http://tiny.cc/FiveReasons-NoO… .
Industry advocates try to minimize concern about problem gambling by citing prevalence rates of between 2 and 4% in the overall adult population; the prevalence of problem gambling is, of course, much higher among actual gamblers. Focusing on the prevalence of problem gambling within the overall adult population, instead of the prevalence within the projected customer base is as misleading as calculating motorcycle accident or death rates as a percentage of the total population, instead of as a percentage of the 2% of the population that own a motorcycle. The 10% of slot machine gamblers who generate 70-90% of the slot machine wagers are exactly the population that the gambling industry is targeting, and to the extent that Massachusetts exploits their addiction to bolster our tax revenues, we are all complicit in their ruin, and in the pain and suffering their addiction cause to others. See Reason #3 at http://tiny.cc/FiveReasons-NoO… for some disturbing statistics and analyses about problem gambling in the America from the 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission and from an article published a few years ago by the American Bar Association.
Without problem gamblers, the casinos/slot machine warehouses authorized by the proposed legislation don’t make money, and can’t generate the jobs or taxes that gambling advocates have promised. In other words, proponents are asking the Legislature for the go-ahead to exploit the already-addicted 6% of gamblers, and to hook as many of the 12% of at-risk-of-addiction gamblers as they can. (The 6% and 12% estimates come from the NGIS study.) The question legislators have to answer for themselves, then, is whether the wellbeing of 6-18% of slot machine customers targeted for exploitation — and the wellbeing of their families, employers, and communities — is an acceptable tradeoff for the anticipated jobs and revenues.
What health department would promote flu shots if they caused 6-18% of vaccinated people to develop chronic health problems? What kind of parent would purchase a toy that was known to injure 6-18% of the children who play with it? Would you fly on an airline that had a 6-18% failure rate? How long would a restaurant last if 6-18% of its patrons predictably required hospitalization after eating there? Why are legislators so willing to legalize a product that will addict and contribute to the financial ruin of 6,000 to 18,000 of every 100,000 users? Particularly, when there are other alternatives that create as many jobs faster, and without the concomitant social and economic costs.
Some advocates of expanded gambling make the libertarian argument that people have the right to spend their money as they see fit. There is a huge distinction, however, between a person’s right to gamble and the government’s decision to enter into a public/private partnership to promote predatory slot machine gambling despite the predictable consequences to gamblers, their families, impacted communities, and cannibalized businesses and their employees.
Reason #4 – The notion of setting aside more adequate resources for “treatment” is a cruel hoax.
Proponents of expanded gambling have argued that the risks can be mitigated by making treatment more available to those who need it. The sobering reality is that they’re wrong. Testimony from Dr. William Bennett, a Somerville psychiatrist whose patient base includes problem gamblers, paints a bleak picture of treatment alternatives.
First of all, treatment only works for those who seek it. All too often, before pathological gamblers acknowledge the need for treatment, they have done irreversible damage to themselves, their families, and their employers. Treatment doesn’t put back the home, the marriage, or the job.
Once an addict finally does seek treatment, available options are few and largely ineffective:
“No medication has been shown to inhibit gambling addiction.”
Although “there are some data to support the effectiveness of cognitive/behavioral therapy (CBT) for pathological gambling…, CBT is an expensive and barely available modality that requires high motivation on the part of the client.” As with other addictions, the tendency to deny the problem is strong, and the motivation to seek and maintain treatment is unreliable and often hard to sustain.
“[There is] no evidence of direct [financial or insurance] support for any treatment modality. There are scattered clinics offering gambling treatment, which must be compensated by insurance.”
“Gambling addiction, under current law, is not regarded as a ‘biological’ condition triggering the parity provisions for mental health coverage.” That is, obligations to cover other mental health services do not compel insurers to cover treatment for gambling addiction.
“Over the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts … in any given week there are only 46 [12-step Gamblers Anonymous] meetings (six-and-a-half per day) which take place in 36 [scattered] cities and towns… For this kind of treatment to be effective, the addict needs to be able to go to a meeting every day or nearly so….”
In other words, available treatment is largely ineffectual, difficult to access, and, because of the nature of the addiction, is typically sought only after the damage has been done.
State Legislators who think that pumping additional resources into a fundamentally inadequate treatment system justifies the introduction and promotion of an industry whose profits depend on the addiction and exploitation of its customers should consider the lesson of the Gulf Coast oil spill. Offshore drilling permits were issued despite the fact, as recently acknowledged by the CEO of Exxon, that none of the participating oil companies were prepar
ed to handle the consequences of the kind of accident that has ruined thousands of lives and livelihoods in the Gulf of Mexico.
If we don’t have the resources or technology to mitigate the harm to problem gamblers, their families, and their communities, and if we are prepared to intervene only after the damage has been done to their lives, what business do we have unleashing an industry that is dependent on compulsive gambling for its profits?