Retiring foe of gaming addiction warns against online gambling

The retiring chief of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling used one of his final appearances before the legislature to press Monday for several new safeguards to accompany any new online gaming program.

Executive Director Marvin Steinberg and his successor, Mary A. Drexler, also praised Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for recommending that a portion of any revenue from new gaming initiatives be dedicated to fight gambling addiction.

"The green light is on," Steinberg told the Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee during an information meeting, referring to growing speculation that new gaming proposals could be raised during the 2012 legislative session, which starts Wednesday, Feb. 8. "And with that comes an enormous responsibility."

Malloy has spoken several times over the past two months on the need to strengthen existing gaming operations here, both as Congress considers easing restrictions in this field, and particularly in light of a recent U.S Justice Department ruling that reversed many longstanding roadblocks to gaming on the Internet.

The state expects to collect just over $640 million this fiscal year from its share of video slot revenues from the two Indian casinos in southeastern Connecticut and from lottery games, but it dedicates just $1.9 million to fight gambling addiction.

Steinberg said he originally planned to recommend doubling funding to assist problem gamblers and their families, but said he also likes an idea offered Monday morning by the governor.

Malloy said Monday that if any new gaming ventures were approved this session, state government should dedicate 1 percent of that new revenue to fight problem gambling.

"The more money you spend on gambling, the more revenue you make, the likelihood is greater you are going to have more problems," Steinberg said, adding that the relationship between the two is inescapable. "So if you tie (anti-addiction spending) to revenue, that would be great."

An affiliate of the National Council on Problem Gambling, the state council is barred because of that link from recommending for or against adoption of any new form of gaming, Steinberg said.

"It's not our business whether to tell you to legalize something or not," he said, adding that his group wants state government to recognize that with gambling comes social harms that can cost more to address -- particularly if the state has failed to plan for them.

But Connecticut cannot plan effectively unless it is willing to explore problems that, in the past, many leaders haven't been anxious to look at, Steinberg said, a reference to mandated studies on problem gaming that were postponed numerous times throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

"It's human nature not to want to know too much about the downside once you've committed yourselves to something," he said.

Problem gambling can lead addicts beyond depression into theft, and even to suicide, Steinberg said, adding that this creates trouble not just for the addict, but for family members and society in general. "It's a personal problem," he said. "It's a family problem. But it's also a community problem."

Drexler, who is taking the post Steinberg held for 31 years, said online gambling is one of the most dangerous forms of gaming for addicts for several reasons.

It is more likely that minors -- most of whom have easy access to computers -- will be able to gamble illegally, and they may be particularly drawn to it because of a similarity with video games. "Research shows," Drexler said, "the earlier gambling begins, the more likely a gambling problem is going to develop."

Other reasons that online gaming presents particular challenges, Drexler said, include:

  • Convenience: Anyone with a computer or even a smart phone can reach gaming Internet sites;
  • Fewer checks and balances: Operators of such sites have less control to stop self-destructive gamblers who are on the verge of risking too much. And because it is likely a game that users will play alone, relatives or friends who might urge them to quit after sustaining significant losses might not be present to stop the online gambler;
  • No cash involved: Online gamblers only have to use a credit card, and don't ever have to withdraw funds from an automated teller, or reach for cash to buy chips. "The loss of money may not feel as real," Drexler said.

In addition to recommending that lawmakers dedicate more money to fight problem gambling, Steinberg suggested that state officials take the time to survey Connecticut residents on how they feel about expanded gaming. He noted that a March 2010 poll by Quinnipiac University in Hamden found that 70 percent of Connecticut voters opposed allowing Keno in restaurants, bars and convenience stores.

"I think we need to do more referendum kinds of activities to find out what constituents think," he said.

Steinberg also recommended that Connecticut do more research into online gambling. Recalling the Keno debate of 2010, Steinberg said one state official said he felt confident about legalizing that game since special revenue officials in three other states said that adding Keno had posed no problems in their states. "If that's scientific research, I'm going to give up my degree."

Other steps Connecticut should take to accompany any online gaming expansion, he added, include:

  • Studying effective counter-measures to problem gambling used in other states, particularly focusing on steps to safeguard minors;
  • Mandating a study on the impact of new gaming to be conducted shortly after implementation. "We don't want to wait five years for the next state-sponsored study," he said.

Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, noted that Connecticut might be facing a considerable challenge to its gaming revenue not just from online operations, but from new casinos planned in Massachusetts and New York. Legislative analysts have warned this could cost Connecticut more than $130 million per year in gaming revenue by 2013-14.

"The tide is moving toward beating your neighbors," Steinberg conceded, but quickly added that rushing without preparing to deal with the social costs of problem gaming ultimately would prove more expensive.

Rep. Sean J. Williams of Watertown, ranking House Republican on the finance panel, pressed Steinberg's group to reconsider its neutral position on whether to expand gaming here.

"Why are you just giving up that battle?" Williams said.

But the retiring executive director said that despite the limits on his organization, his personal position goes beyond trying to cope with problem gambling. "As a citizen, I am not in favor of this much dependency on gambling funds," he said.

Drexler, who assumes her new post later this week, is now assistant director for the state council as well as a member of the Connecticut Partnership for Responsible Gambling. She has more than 30 years' experience in the social services field, holds a master's degree from the University of Connecticut School of Social Work and has served on the council of delegates for the American Association of Suicidology.

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