Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 19, 1998 / 21 Tevet, 5758
Commission tackles America's fastest-growing addiction: gambling
WHEN THE National Gambling Impact Study Commission has it first on-site hearings in Atlantic City on Jan. 21 and 22, there will be no shortage of grist for its mill.
Gambling is billed as a harmless diversion. (The industry prefers the euphemistic moniker "gaming.") But the latest data confirms the historic perception of gambling as a vice on par with drugs, prostitution and other corrosive forms of adult entertainment.
In October, Edward W. Donahue was arrested for the murder of his wife, Elaine. The Reading, Mass., woman had been missing for several weeks when police discovered her body a storage locker.
Donahue, an unemployed accountant, was described as a "chronic gambler." The couple frequently fought over his gambling debts, and the murder may have followed one of these fights. According to the Maryland attorney general, 37 percent of pathological gamblers have abused their children.
In November, a Long Island teen arranged his own death at the hands of the police. Moshe Pergament of Manhasset Hills, N.Y., (who had $6,000 in gambling debts) drove his car erratically to attract the police. When he was stopped, the 19-year-old got out and pointed a toy gun at a cop, who shot him dead. Pergament left a suicide note that read, "Tell the police officers that I'm sorry but I wanted to die."
In December, Harvard released the results of a review of 120 studies showing a significant increase in gambling addiction over the past 20 years -- not coincidentally, a period when legalized gambling metastasized.
Between 1977 and 1993, adults classified with severe gambling disorders (involving embezzlement, bankruptcy and family crises) increased from 0.84 percent to 1.29 percent of the population.
However, when the definition is expanded to include those who have lied, stolen, cheated or suffered anxiety attacks in pursuit of Lady Luck, the numbers rise to around 7 percent of adults.
The Harvard report was followed by the release of a study by Dr. David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California, which noted significantly higher suicide rates in cities with casinos. Las Vegas and Atlantic City have rates four times greater than comparably sized cities without gambling.
Frank Fahrenkopf, president of the American Gaming Association, denied the obvious. Fahrenkopf tried to explain away the suicide statistics, as they relate to Las Vegas, by observing that people who move out West find themselves isolated and bereft of personal support systems. This, and not the despair of gambling-induced penury and wrecked relationships, causes them to kill themselves, the lobbyist contends.
For an annual salary of $800,000, paid to him to represent a business with fewer scruples than the tobacco industry, you'd think Fahrenkopf could be a bit more creative.
Gambling is now one of America's biggest businesses. Half a trillion dollars is wagered annually. Americans spend nearly as much on gambling (6 percent of GNP) as on family groceries (8 percent). There are 37 state lotteries and casinos in 23 states, as well as on 225 Indian reservations.
Visitors to these temples of delusion and patrons of state lotteries aren't the only marks. Government, which views gambling as the revenue mother lode, has joined the ranks of suckers.
The 19th century Frenchman Frederic Bastiat spoke of the seen and unseen in government economic policy. The benefits are readily perceived; the drawbacks, because they're less apparent, are generally ignored.
With legalized gambling, politicians see the revenue from lottery sales or taxes generated by casinos. They miss the increased social costs -- including crime, welfare and family dissolution -- that flow from promoting the pathology.
John Kindt, a professor of business at the University of Illinois, estimates that for every dollar gambling brings to a state, citizens will pay out $3 to $7 in hidden costs.
Kay James, chairman of the Gambling Impact Study Commission, hopes to illuminate these hidden costs. James says the public doesn't want to hear from lobbyists (most of whom the industry owns, anyway), but from those with hard data or personal experiences to recount -- researchers, addiction experts, staffers at crisis centers and ex-gamblers.
Over the next 18 months, the commission will provide that input. It might just spark the first national dialogue on what's been called America's fastest-growing addiction.
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