[This is the the second of a multi-part in-depth examination of the issues on-line poker faces in the US. Click here to read Part 1. LasVegasVegas investigative journalist Gene Bromberg has spent countless hours researching the problems and uncovering the truths, half-truths, and outright lies employed by the opposition to the legalization of on-line poker and gaming in general.--Editor]
One of the difficulties in discussing problem gamblers is deciding who, exactly, is a "problem" gambler. If you visit the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling homepage you'll learn that those who have a casino between 10 and 50 miles from home are twice as likely to become gambling addicts. That this statistic is somewhat misleading should not come as a surprise, considering the source, but examining the study conducted by the Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) that NCALG links to leads to some interesting conclusions.
It stands to reason that people will gamble more if gaming is legal and easily available. You're less likely to gamble if it requires a four-hour flight instead of a fifteen-minute drive, and many people don't like breaking the law no matter now minor the offense might be or how lax the enforcement is. That alone is hardly reason enough to start banning gambling where it's legal (or limit it to tightly-restricted and remote locations), but, logically, people are more likely to engage in an activity when it's legal and convenient as opposed to illegal and inconvenient.
But does access to gambling make pathological gambling epidemic? According to the RIA study, the level of neighborhood disadvantage had a considerable impact on the percentage of problem gamblers. Poorer areas tended to have higher percentages of problem gamblers--even if those people who did describe issues with gambling were not necessarily poor themselves.
The study also showed that people who live within 10 miles of a casino had twice the rate of problem gambling. The authors, however, specifically distanced themselves from the "10 to 50 miles" statistic quoted by the NCALG by saying that a study conducted that found twice the number of problem gamblers within 50 miles of a casino "did not contain the necessary data for a finer determination". The authors also referenced other studies and statistics that contradict the NCALG's broad condemnation of gambling.
One of these studies, conduced in 2002, found that 6.4% of Nevada residents are pathological/problem gamblers. The method used to determine this was the South Oaks Gambling Screen (SOGS). The SOGS asks 16 multi-part questions and if you answer a single one of their behavioral questions in the affirmative (even relatively innocuous ones like "Did you ever gamble more than you planned" or "Have you ever claimed to be winning money while gambling, even though you were actually losing money") you are identified as having some problem with gambling.
However, in the same study, a more rigorous test was used (the NORC DSM Screen for Problem Gambling) and found that only 0.3% of Nevadans currently engaged in pathological behavior (and 2.1% had engaged in such behavior at some point in their lives). As the RIA study says, "...according to (these) figures, Nevada has a lower rate of current pathological gambling than the U.S."
In 1998 NORC conducted their own national survey and found rates of 0.6% for current pathological gambling and 1.2% for lifetime pathological gambling. The 2002 study I mentioned earlier also found that adolescents living in Nevada "did not have unusually high rates of pathological/problem gambling".
So far as how introducing gambling into areas that never had it before, again the statistics don't paint a clear picture. Surveys taken in Minnesota in 1990 and 1994 showed an increase in problem gambling from 2.5% to 4.4%...but a panel study of Minnesota adolescents during an 8-year period in the 1990s showed that gambling rates (both regular and pathological) remained stable even as Minnesota introduced new gambling options.
What we have here is a lot of data and a broad spectrum of differing (and sometimes contradictory) conclusions gleaned from that data. Soberly examining these studies and making smart policy decisions based on the facts is what the public would like their elected officials to do (at least that's what one hopes). For the NCALG (and other anti-gambling groups) critically examining the facts and making reasonable decisions is a sucker's game, not when you can throw out statements like, "In the brick and mortar world of gambling, a casino within 10 to 50 miles will double addiction rates, and sometimes more" and "Internet gambling has been called the "perfect storm" of gambling" and figure that no one will do any critical thinking about THEM. The truth, the facts, the actual problem of gambling addiction and how it might best be addressed...all are irrelevant. That isn't a responsible way of dealing with those who do have gambling problems, nor is it fair to demonize an activity that can be responsibly enjoyed by the vast majority of people.