I’ve always been opposed to gambling expansion, but I never fully understood the prevalence or devastating impact of problem gambling until I jumped headlong into the fight against Tim Eyman’s incredibly stupid slot machine initiative, I-892. My personal tutor on this issue was our state’s leading advocate on behalf of problem gamblers, Jennifer McCausland of Second Chance Washington, whose passion and perseverance played a major role in securing passage of last session ‘s landmark (and long overdue) legislation to provide permanent funding for problem gambling treatment and prevention programs.
McCausland has a guest column in today’s Seattle P-I (“Teens are gambling with their lives“), spelling out the desperate need to educate parents and teens about the dangers of gambling addiction, at a time when poker and other forms of wagering are being aggressively marketed to our nation’s youth.
The gambling industry’s deliberate effort to hook the young is eerily reminiscent of tobacco industry campaigns decades earlier. From the glamour of Bravo’s celebrity poker tournaments to the daily poker-as-sport programming on ESPN, Fox Sports and elsewhere, the industry is attempting to both normalize and entice, much like Big Tobacco once used Hollywood to sell a long drag and the seductive trail of cigarette smoke as the epitome of cool.
While access to gambling has exploded, and youths are being exposed at an earlier and earlier age, there is virtually no effort to inform parents and children about the very real dangers involved. Proceeds of the national tobacco settlement enable Washington state to spend $28 million a year on its highly successful campaign to curb teen smoking; unfortunately only pennies are spent to warn parents and teens about gambling addiction.
A Harvard Medical School study found teen gamblers are three times more likely to become addicted than their adult counterparts and the younger the age of initial exposure the higher the incidence. Other studies estimate that between 2.5 percent and 6 percent of teens are already addicted. The 1999 National Gambling Impact Study made two crucial recommendations: raise the legal gambling age to 21 and launch “targeted prevention efforts … to curtail youth gambling.”
Six years later, it’s time to start acting on these recommendations.
Last year a WA State Gambling Commission sting operation found that five casinos of the seven surveyed permitted a 16-year-old agent to gamble and buy alcohol. Drinking and gambling are inextricably mixed; WA needs to follow the national trend and raise the legal age to 21 on all forms of gambling. And following the example of our state’s highly successful $28 million a year campaign to curb teen smoking, WA should set an example by devoting a few million dollars a year to educate parents and teens about the dangers of gambling addiction as well.
We’re not talking about banning gambling, or shutting down casinos… we’re talking about educating the public about the very real risks involved. Parents and teens need to understand that gambling can be just as addictive as alcohol… and just as destructive.
When I was a teen, my parents sometimes purchased beer for my high school parties; understanding that we would likely drink with or without their permission, they preferred that we do it under their careful supervision. Today, that “responsible” attitude would get them shunned from the community, if not arrested and jailed.
We need a similar paradigm shift in parents’ understanding of gambling… that it is not a harmless activity that should be promoted to children and teens — who are three times more likely to become addicted than adults — and that parents and educators should always be vigilant for the warning signs of addiction. With the poker craze in full swing and access to gambling expanding at a steady clip, teen gambling is becoming a growing public health crisis whose young victims will struggle with their addiction for the rest of their lives.
My understanding is that there are legislators who recognize the need to act now, and I hope you will all join me in supporting legislation to raise the gambling age to 21, and to provide sufficient funds for a substantive teen gambling addiction awareness, education and prevention campaign.