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Originally published August 27, 2011 at 4:20 PM | Page modified August 27, 2011 at 4:19 PM

Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

America's gambling addiction threatens the nation's soul

Today's economies and politics are fueling the push to universalized gambling, writes Neal Peirce. State governments struggling with monster deficits are desperate for any new form of revenue. It's a fatal mistake — not just because of long-term social costs, but for its assault on our national soul.

Syndicated columnist

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WASHINGTON — What if all of America were like Las Vegas, with gambling as near as the closest convenience store? Or if states offered blackjack, poker and other casino-style games online, as accessible as your personal computer?

Those are the intriguing questions that struck me while reading journalist (and self-confessed gambling addict) Sam Skolnik's new book, "High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America's Gambling Addiction" (Beacon Press).

Currently, the Washington, D.C., government hopes to install an Internet gambling hub by the end of this year. California and Massachusetts have bills pending. Other states are watching with interest to see if the federal Justice Department chooses to enforce existing law that seems, at face value, to prohibit online wagering.

Today's economies and politics are fueling the push to universalized gambling. State governments struggling with monster deficits are desperate for any new form of revenue. And the nation seems seized by weirdly irrational politics that equates any tax increase with original sin.

Already, government-countenanced (or directly run) gambling is at a historical high-water mark. All but seven states have lotteries. Casino gambling, both state-countenanced and run by Indian tribes, is spreading like wildfire, especially in the Northeast. Each year, at least half of America's states consider new gambling outlets. "There is a legalized gambling avalanche in progress in America," Skolnik concludes.

And at a high price, he adds: Newly legalized gambling opportunities invariably create new gamblers. A small but significant percentage get hooked. Gambling addiction leads to unemployment, bankruptcies, divorces, illnesses — and in some of the severest cases, suicide. Addicted gamblers, estimates Baylor University scholar Earl Grinois, cost the United States as much as $50 billion a year.

Aware of the downside, state officials usually agree to set aside some small portions of the new lottery or casino profits for public awareness and gambling-treatment programs. But what that really signifies, Skolnik notes, is that state governments are willfully creating a new class of addicts.

Las Vegas provides, inevitably, the ultimate example of a society — and possibly a future America — hooked on gambling.

Most Americans think of Vegas' gambling as the tourist-oriented Strip, with its more than two dozen huge casino resorts. But there's much more, Skolnik notes: 25-plus full-service neighborhood-based casinos, specifically designed to lure the "locals," not tourists.

Net result: Gambling is Las Vegas' dominant lifestyle theme. Clark County has 14,000 video poker and slot machines chiming 24 hours a day. They're located in some 1,400 restaurants, bars and retail outlets ranging from chain grocery and drugstores to 7-Elevens. Shopping centers routinely offer gambling opportunities. Slot machines are right beside pizza parlors and child-care centers. There's no way to escape them.

On top of all that, Vegas' locally focused casinos advertise relentlessly, by mail to residents and on billboards across the region. A 2002 statewide study, commissioned by Nevada's Department of Human Resources, found that 3.5 percent of the state's population could be classified as "probable" pathological gamblers, and another 2.9 percent slightly less serious gamblers — in other words, one of every 16 adult Nevadans, or roughly 115,000 people.

On average, University of Nevada-Las Vegas scholars William Thompson and William Epstein have found, Clark County adults incur gambling losses averaging $1,511 a year, compared with a U.S.-wide figure of $391.

Can it then be by sheer happenstance that Nevada leads the nation, year by year, in such crimes as murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery and burglary? That Nevada tops the 50 states in rates of personal bankruptcies and home foreclosures? That the state's suicide rate regularly doubles the national average?

Message to legislators in the other 49 states: Is the Las Vegas/Nevada model — and price — one you seriously want to emulate?

Not surprisingly, the Las Vegas Valley leads the world with nearly 100 weekly meetings of Gamblers Anonymous, the nonprofit organization that provides support for problem gamblers.

Allowed to sit in on a Gamblers Anonymous meeting last year in Vegas, Skolnik heard repeated stories of personal gambling-based tragedies. One woman, in her mid-70s, had been a poker dealer on the Strip and in downtown for some 30 years. She gambled frequently off-duty, often to excess. Eventually she "maxed out" eight credit cards, sold most of her possessions, and purchased a gun. She aimed for her heart, but missed by an inch. And she told of how she's been in recovery for three years.

Overall, Thompson has estimated, wagering in Las Vegas results in social costs of $900 million a year — and that's just for local residents, not tourists.

Bottom line: Broadening gambling to relieve states' budget headaches may be a fatal mistake — not just because it triggers long-term social costs, but for its ugly assault on our national soul.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is nrp@citistates.com




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