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Casino bill puts $25m focus on addicts

Plans prevention, treatment efforts

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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On her final day of gambling, Feb. 21, 2009, Sandi Hall lost $1,000 in 60 minutes to the slot machines at Foxwoods Casino and then spent a sleepless night thinking about how to confess a dark secret to her husband.

During a two-year gambling spree hidden by a veil of lies, the grandmother from Scituate, R.I., had lost at least $40,000, probably more, at the Connecticut Indian casinos and the Twin River slots parlor in Lincoln, R.I.

“The insanity of it is that you rationally know that what you’re doing is absolutely crazy,’’ Hall, 67, said in an interview. “I knew I was risking my husband, my marriage. I did away with most of my retirement money.’’

Even while trumpeting the jobs that casinos would create in Massachusetts, proponents of expanded gambling acknowledge that casinos come with a human cost, measured in the lost savings and loss of control by gamblers who become addicted.

A casino bill to be taken up next week by the state Senate calls for what would be one of the nation’s most aggressive programs to help people like Hall, including an estimated $25 million annually to support addiction prevention, treatment, and research. The Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling has praised the plan as a big step in the right direction.

“We’re taking gambling addiction extremely seriously and to a whole new level,’’ said state Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat and a leading supporter of the bill.

The casino bill under consideration would authorize three Las Vegas-style resort casinos and one slots-only betting parlor. The Massachusetts House approved a similar bill last week. Governor Deval Patrick has said he is inclined to sign a casino bill when it reaches his desk.

The bills include several provisions aimed at reducing problem gambling, beginning with creation of a public health trust fund to fight addiction. Under the legislation, the casino properties would pay fees into the fund totaling $5 million per year. In addition, the fund would receive 5 percent of the state’s casino tax revenue, an estimated $20 million each year, Rosenberg said.

The money would be spent on social service and public health programs that fight gambling addiction, as well as public education on problem gambling, research, and studies.

“It’s so we can do treatment in the broadest sense, which can include mental health treatment,’’ Rosenberg said. “It could be residential treatment. It could be specific addiction treatment such as Gamblers Anonymous, things of that nature, and also prevention services: advertising, hotlines, and all kind of things in the casinos and outside to get people to think twice about what they’re doing if they’re having a problem.’’

An annual $25 million budget for gambling addiction programs would be “an amazing figure if it’s valid,’’ said Bob Breen, director of the gambling treatment program at Rhode Island Hospital, which he said receives the comparatively meager sum of $75,000 annually for the treatment of problem gambling. The state has two slots parlors.

Breen warned that a state’s commitment to treating addiction could wane over time. He said his own state has slashed money for gambling treatment in half during the past several years to meet other budget needs.

While Massachusetts residents have long been able to drive south to gamble in Connecticut or Rhode Island, Breen said that research shows that making gambling easier and more convenient will inevitably create more addicts.

“The question is how many is OK?’’ he said. “And what are you going to do with the ones who develop problems?’’

To help gambling addicts quit, the Massachusetts legislation would create a voluntary “self-exclusion list’’ for problem gamblers to, in effect, ban themselves from casinos. Many states have similar programs, but the Massachusetts law would go much further by allowing relatives to file in court to get an unwilling family member with a gambling problem onto the exclusion list.

“That would be an advance,’’ said Marvin Steinberg, a psychologist who runs the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling. “Families become very frustrated because they have not been able to exclude someone’’ from casinos in other states.

Steinberg, who said he worked with Foxwoods in 1994 to install the nation’s first self-exclusion list, said the programs help some problem gamblers, though they are regularly flouted by those who change their minds when the gambling urge strikes.

“Enforcement by casinos has been not active in a sense of going out and looking for people,’’ he said. “It’s created to help the person who wants to stop. It’s not a punitive thing by the casino. They don’t promise to find everybody if they come back.’’

Disobeying the exclusion list is a lose-lose proposition for the gambler: Casinos will not pay winnings to someone found to be self-excluded, and yet they will not reimburse any losses, either.

“If you’re excluded and if you hit a $5,000 or $10,000 jackpot, they won’t pay you,’’ said Hall, the recovering addict. “The only one who wins is the casino.’’

But in the throes of her addiction, being unable to collect a jackpot would not have made any difference to Hall.

“As a social gambler, I had hoped to win,’’ she said. “When I was addicted, I knew I wasn’t going to win and that I would give all my winnings back.’’

In fact, she would sometimes get annoyed when she won a slot jackpot because the machine would shut down until an attendant arrived to pay out her winnings. “I would have to stop playing while they paid me, and that could take up to 15 or 20 minutes,’’ she said.

The legislation also requires casino companies to provide free space on-site for mental health and addiction services and training for employees to identify patrons with gambling problems.

As gambling technology evolves and casinos move toward cash-free wagering through electronic cards, the legislation would allow gamblers to set their own limits before they start gambling, by restricting how much they may bet or lose per hour or per day, according to the legislation. Where the technology is available, the bill provides that gamblers may request regular statements from the casino tallying their wins and losses.

Taken in total, the provisions to reduce or treat problem gambling are “a good start, if it all actually happens and if the dollars are there for prevention programs,’’ said Steinberg. He recommended wide advertising of treatment programs for those who fall into addiction, which is something Hall can support:

When she finally struck bottom and decided to get treatment, Hall called a help-line number printed on the back of a lottery ticket.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.