What Are We Going to Do About Gambling Addicts?

My solution to gambling addiction would be same one that seems to be helping keep track of sexual predators: A national registry. If widely shared, such a list could prevent addicts from any legalized gambling.
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I need ten thousand angels
watching over me tonight

- Mindy McCready

I grew up at a time when you couldn't buy alcohol on Sunday and it wasn't advertised on television at all. Other than horse racing, gambling was illegal. Lotteries were called the "numbers racket" and were primarily run by the Mafia.

When I was 10, one of my high school-age neighbors was arrested for having possession of two marijuana joints. He served a couple of years in jail. Now he would get a fine or, at most, a chance to "rehabilitate" himself.

On the other hand, I can remember when cigarettes were advertised on television. People would fire up their smokes inside or wherever they felt like it.

I'm sure sexual predators were around then, but no one ever talked about them. People brought guns, knives and other weapons to schools. Drunk driving was not really considered a major offense. The police would often let you drive home after they pulled you over.

It's not that we now have a more permissive society -- it's just that we changed what we are permissive about.

The push for what is being permitted is fueled by a common factor: Money.

Gambling has brought in mega-dollars for states and big corporations. Expanding alcohol service to Sunday means more money for restaurants, bars and distributors.

The trends toward things we don't tolerate tend to be results of well organized social movements.

Not many really cared all that much about drunk driving until MADD put it at the front of our consciousness. Same with sexual predators and anti-smoking laws.

For many of these things, it took several years for the public to become concerned about the problem. And then it took many more years to get legislation to address the problem.

The number of drunk drivers has gone down even though the limit defining legal intoxication is lower. Enforcement is tougher and most people are better about "self- policing" themselves.

Just as I don't have any problem with gambling in moderation, I don't have any problem with drinking in moderation.

I don't like seeing people getting drunk and being carried out of the restaurant or bar. I especially don't like drunk drivers. Every dime we spend on enforcement and treatment saves lives.

I recently spent a week visiting the casino at Gulfstream Park race track and the Seminole Hard Rock casino in Hollywood, Florida. Those casinos were fun places to visit.

I also came away with the same lingering thought: Everyone is aware of gambling addicts but no real steps are taken to deal with them effectively.

Like any addict, an out-of-control gambler wreaks havoc on society, his family and himself.

And as with any other addiction, treatment comes from support, self-understanding and cutting off access to the substance causing the addiction.

Food is a lifelong addiction for me. Not sustenance-level food. Excess-level food. My best control mechanism to keep high calorie foods away from me.

If I have my favorite foods in my refrigerator, I'm going to eat them. But if I have to drive 20 miles to get a good burger, I'm going to stop and think long and hard before I do it.

Gambling addicts are going to bet if they have easy access. That's just the nature of addiction.

The key is to allow fewer opportunities for problem gamblers to be tempted.

And to make sure that anyone who sincerely wants treatment has affordable access to it.

The problem gambler creates the same dilemma for a casino that a heavy drinker does for a bar or an out-of-control spender makes for a credit card company.

Those who gamble but don't go over the edge are the profitable customers for a casino. People who max-out their credit cards but reliably make the minimum monthly payments rack up record profits for the card companies.

It's when they go over the edge that there is a problem. A gambler who starts robbing banks to support his habit is a problem for everyone, just as is a heavy credit card user who goes into bankruptcy.

My simple solution would be same one that seems to be helping keep track of sexual predators: A national registry.

One list would contain the names and identifying information for all gambling addicts who are barred from all legalized forms of gambling.

It's easy for casinos to track their customers. Few industries do it better. Casinos have something called "reward cards," and the one thing I noticed in common at both Gulfstream and Hard Rock were the long lines of people lined up to get their "free" T-shirt or other trinket they "earned" with their rewards cards.

A national registry of problem gamblers could be part voluntary and part mandatory.

Recovering addicts could volunteer to put themselves on a list to be barred from any and all gambling establishments. If they buy a lottery ticket (the hardest form of gambling to regulate) the jackpot goes to charity if they win.

If someone commits a crime in order to support a gambling habit, they go on the registry.

Under my proposal, if a bookie or illegal operation knowingly takes a bet from someone on a "problem gambling" list, it's a felony. The bookies need to "know their customers."

Bookies don't want felonies. Few go to jail these days since illegal gambling is not a law enforcement priority unless it's tied to other illegal activity.

Having grown up around bookmakers, I feel sure that bookies will be the highest compliers. They don't want the hassle of problem gamblers, either.

It would seem that casinos, race tracks, lotteries and those in legalized gambling would be the ones pushing hardest for the "problem gambler registry."

If they can show they have a program that will work and can track concrete results, a major argument against legalized gambling is taken off the table.

The battle of big money versus social movement is the ying and yang of how America was built.

In every era where things get out of control, the reaction has always been extreme. We've had wide-open gambling, drugs and drinking in the past. We've also had prohibition and temperance movements.

Throughout history, the reaction has been more draconian than how things were before they got out of hand. Over-reaction is the norm.

I grew up in the Newport and Covington area of Northern Kentucky, where gambling was completely wide open in those days.

When it was shut down, they shut it down completely. It took a couple of decades and some innovative leadership for the economy of that region to recover in a post-gambling world.

If the pro-gambling forces are smart money people, they will be the first to embrace my proposal.

Right now, the pro-gambling people are having a hot run. Casinos and lotteries are popping up everywhere. If those who favor gambling want to keep on drawing aces, they need to be proactive and recognize that the problem gambler is their problem, too.

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