Underage gambling is out of control

I’d like to take a break from speculating on the ballot count in the governor’s race to actually talk about something important. Underage gambling.

As my regular readers know, I was a vociferous opponent of Tim Eyman’s I-892, an initiative that would have put 18,255 slot machines into over 2000 locations in nearly every community in the state. But just because I-892 was crushed at the polls with less than 38% of the vote, doesn’t mean I’m going to let this issue die.

As an editorial in today’s Seattle P-I points out, I-892 was rejected because Washington voters simply don’t want more gambling. The No campaign had a very simple task — they didn’t have to convince voters that putting slot machines into our neighborhoods is a bad idea — they merely had to convince voters that I-892 would put slot machines into our neighborhoods.

Washingtonians understand that expanding gambling comes with social costs that simply are not worth the extra tax revenues. But I’m not sure we fully understand exactly how much gambling can cost us.

Our children.

Back on 9/30 I told you about an extraordinary documentary shot by some recent grads of Shorewood High School that showed teenagers — some as young as 12 — caught up in the current gambling craze (“Problem gambling isn’t kid’s play“.) The documentary was later the subject of a KING-5 TV special report: “Underage gambling out of control“.

Thanks to a tip from problem gambling advocate Jennifer McCausland, the Washington State Gambling Commission and Washington State Liquor Control Board conducted a joint sting operation at seven Seattle-area mini-casinos. WSGC officials were surprised to find that a “very young looking” sixteen-year-old was able to gamble and purchase alcohol at three of the seven targeted card rooms.

You’d think with a major gambling initiative on the ballot, this would have been big news in the weeks leading up to the election, but it’s only during the past week that this story is beginning to get a bit of play. Both KOMO-4 TV and KING-5 TV ran pieces yesterday showing seized surveillance footage from the sting operation. [Casinos busted for allowing 16-year-old to gamble, buy alcohol] It’s pretty stunning.

Eyman pooh-poohed it during the campaign, but Washington — and much of the rest of the nation — is facing a growing public health crisis: compulsive gambling, an addiction that is just as real and destructive as drug and alcohol abuse. The rapid expansion of gambling here and elsewhere only serves to normalize the experience for our children, while state lotteries spend millions of dollars marketing gambling as the ticket to Easy Street. And the current poker craze, fueled by coverage on ESPN (and even local TV!) will inevitably serve as a gateway towards a lifetime of addiction for an entire generation.

Yes, only 5% of adults are problem gamblers (although they account for as much as 60% of casino profits), but according to a 1999 study, the addiction already afflicted more than one in twelve WA teens. And that was before the poker craze, at a time when total state gambling revenues were half what they are today.

While Eyman promises a son-of-892, that’s not my main concern; the gambling industry is not going to throw good money after bad, and there’s no way he can qualify the initiative for the ballot without their cash.

My concern is that we have a unique opportunity to do something about this problem, and we can’t afford to blow it. I-892, the Shorewood High documentary and the WSGC sting operation have all helped to create public awareness of this growing crisis, while Democratic control of the Legislature offers a hope of funding problem gambling treatment and prevention programs. Such legislation was blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate last session, and regardless of who becomes the next Governor, we need to pressure Olympia to finally take action.

We need greater enforcement of underage gambling laws, and stricter penalties for their violation. But most important, we need to start educating parents and teens about the warning signs of problem gambling, and the very real dangers of lifelong addiction. Ms. McCausland’s Second Chance Washington is a great start, but it’s the responsibility of the commercial and tribal gambling industries to start paying for the problem they are creating.

This is not the last you’ll hear from me on this subject, regardless of what Tim does.


  1. 1

    rudy spews:

    Tax the playing cards with naked people on them that are so highly prized in the Junior High Underground by both boys and girls. Then take that money and shut down Bingo as we all know how that can get grannies and granddaddies in big trouble esp, with their kids who want the family money intact- God, she is spending my inheritence on stupid fun. Oh well. And as you preach against twenty one and hearts for money, give out some advice about abstinence only. Really a winner for 18 year old males who nature is pushing to mate with their herd and the heards over the next two hills. Gambling is here to stay- planet wide.Tax it with a hard nosed grip- they will pay, big profits, like Microsoft.

  2. 2

    Chuck spews:

    You know I really get tired of being told that we need to do something or dont need to for the “children”. I raised my 2 kids as a single dad…yes sole custody with a deadbeat mom percentage wise the rule more than the exeption. This no gambling for the kids or the people that cannot handle it rubs me raw! I am not into babysitting your child for you by having limitations on myself. If I want to go to a private non indian gambling establishment and gamble while drinking and looking at topless girls, it should be my right to do so. We dont need the pandering that we have going on excusing the removal of my rights to do something. Raise your own kids, I did!

  3. 4

    Chris spews:

    Sorry, but with funding and budget problems in this state, I think I feel there are better things to spend money on then problem gambling. Much poorer and needier people to help. And I kinda agree with Chuck…gambling kids should be their parents problem.

    Heck, suing for counting illegitimate/incomplete ballots in one Democratic county and stealing an election is what we should really be spending that budget money on! Go Rossi, triumph over Mr. Berendt’s hypocritical crap.

  4. 5

    Goldy spews:

    Chuck, it’s a shame your reaction was so knee jerk, as you apparently didn’t bother to understand what I was writing about. Did I once mention banning gambling? Shutting down the card rooms? Doing away with the lottery? (Not that doing any of these would bother me.)

    No. What I talked about was enforcing our existing underage gambling laws, and raising the penalties for the violation to something substantial (right now the maximum penalty is $200 per violation.) And I talked about educating parents and teens about the dangers of problem gambling, just like we educate them about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

    We’ve got a $1.5 billion gambling industry in WA, with state and local governments already pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And yet we do not have a single problem gambling treatment program in the entire state, and you can count the number of certified counselors on one hand!

    Problem gamblers are not just an unfortunate byproduct of the gambling industry… they’re it’s best customers, accounting for as much as 60% of its profits. The tribal and commercial gambling industry, along with the state, have a responsibility to help deal with this growing public health crisis. And the most responsible way to deal with it is to help prevent people from becoming addicted when they are at their most vulnerable… in their teens.

  5. 6

    Goldy spews:

    Sorry, but with funding and budget problems in this state, I think I feel there are better things to spend money on then problem gambling.

    That’s because you don’t fully appreciate the societal and economic costs of problem gambling. In 1998, it cost state taxpayers $70 million, and gambling has doubled since then. A few million dollars a year spent on prevention, will save hundreds of millions down the road.

  6. 7

    Justin Hinkley spews:

    Whatever happeneed to parental responsibility? The government should not have to deal with underage gambling issues.