What Is Wrong With Gambling?

“Around 290,000 Australians are problem gamblers and account for over $3 billion in losses annually. This is disastrous not only for these problem gamblers, but also for the estimated 1.5 million people they directly affect as a result of bankruptcy, divorce, suicide and lost time at work.”​—J. Howard, prime minister of Australia, 1999.

JOHN, mentioned in the preceding article, became a problem gambler. * He moved to Australia, where he got married to Linda, also a gambler. John’s addiction grew worse. He says: “I progressed from buying lottery tickets to betting on racehorses and gambling at casinos. I ended up gambling nearly every day. I sometimes gambled away my whole paycheck and had nothing left with which to pay the mortgage or feed the family. Even when I won a lot of money, I continued to gamble. It was the thrill of winning that hooked me.”

Individuals like John are not uncommon. Whole societies seem to have caught gambling fever. The magazine USA Today said that between 1976 and 1997, there was a staggering 3,200-percent increase in the amount wagered on legalized gambling in the United States.

“Gambling used to be considered a moral and social evil. Today it’s a socially acceptable pastime,” states the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. Identifying one reason for this change in public attitude, the paper says: “The image makeover is the direct result of what may be the most expensive and most sustained government-funded advertising campaign in Canadian history.” What impact have efforts to promote gambling had on some societies?

An Epidemic of Problem Gambling

According to an estimate made by the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions, in 1996 there were “7.5 million American adult problem and pathological gamblers” and an additional “7.9 million American adolescent problem and pathological gamblers.” These figures were included in a report compiled by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC), which was presented to the U.S. Congress. The report stated that the number of people with gambling problems in America might actually be significantly higher than recorded.

Because of job loss, diminished physical health, the payment of unemployment benefits, and the cost of treatment programs, problem gambling is estimated to cost U.S. society billions of dollars every year. This figure, though, does little to portray the human cost of problem gambling​—the cost to families, friends, and workmates, resulting from theft,  embezzlement, suicide, domestic violence, and child abuse. An Australian study found that up to ten people can be directly affected by every problem gambler. A report from the National Research Council in the United States says that up to “50 percent of spouses and 10 percent of children experienced physical abuse from the pathological gambler.”

A Contagious Addiction

Like some diseases, problem gambling can seem to spread from parent to child. “Children of compulsive gamblers are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and using drugs, and have an increased risk of developing problem or pathological gambling themselves,” states the NGISC report. The report also warns that “adolescent gamblers are more likely than adults to develop problem and pathological gambling.”

Dr. Howard J. Shaffer, director of the Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addiction Studies, says: “There is an emerging body of evidence suggesting that illicit gambling  among young people is increasing at a rate at least proportional to the opportunity to gamble legally.” As for the potential for pathological gamblers to abuse the technology of the Internet, he says: “As smoking crack cocaine changed the cocaine experience, I think electronics is going to change the way gambling is experienced.”

The gambling trade is often portrayed as supplying harmless fun. But for adolescents, gambling can be as addictive as any illicit drug and can lead to criminal behavior. A survey in the United Kingdom found that among adolescents who gambled, “46 percent stole from their family” to support their habit.

Despite the foregoing facts, one influential gambling association justifies the promotion of gambling by saying: “The vast majority of Americans who enjoy gaming experience no problem whatsoever.” Even if you feel that gambling does not adversely affect your financial or physical health, what impact does gambling have on your spiritual health? Are there good reasons why you should avoid gambling? The following article will consider these questions.


^ par. 3 See the box “Do I Have a Gambling Problem?” on pages 4 and 5.

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Do I Have a Gambling Problem?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the following criteria on page 5 can guide diagnosis of pathological gambling (sometimes called compulsive gambling). Most authorities agree that if you manifest several of the following behaviors, you are a problem gambler, and if you experience any one of these behaviors, you are at risk of becoming a problem gambler.

 Preoccupation You are preoccupied with gambling​—wanting to relive past gambling experiences, planning the next venture, or thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble.

Tolerance You need to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.

Withdrawal You are restless or irritable when attempting to cut down on or stop gambling.

Escape You gamble as a way of escaping from problems or relieving feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression.

Chasing After losing money gambling, you often return another day in order to get even. This behavior is known as chasing one’s losses.

Lying You lie to family members, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of your involvement with gambling.

Loss of control You have made repeated unsuccessful efforts to stop, control, or cut back on gambling.

Illegal acts You have committed illegal acts, such as fraud, theft, or embezzlement, in order to finance your gambling.

Risked significant relationship You have jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, an education or career opportunity, or a job because of gambling.

Bailout You have relied on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling.

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Source: National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, Gemini Research, and The Lewin Group.

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The Real Message in Lottery Ads

“Promoting lotteries . . . may be viewed as values education, teaching that gambling is a benign or even virtuous activity,” say researchers at Duke University, in the United States, in a report submitted to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. What effect does lottery advertising really have on the community? The report states: “It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the message of lottery advertising is a subversive one​—that success lies in picking the right number. This perverse ‘education’ initiative being promulgated by the lottery agencies may have the ironic effect of reducing government revenues over the long run, by reducing economic growth. Specifically, if the lottery promotion erodes the propensities to work, save, and self-invest in education and training, the consequence will eventually attenuate growth in productivity. In any case, betting on a miracle is not the formula for success we usually teach to our children.”

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Every Home a Casino

At a fraction of the cost of building new gambling establishments, gambling organizations now build Web sites that can turn any home with an Internet-connected computer into a virtual casino. In the mid-1990’s, there were approximately 25 gambling sites on the Internet. In 2001 there were more than 1,200 sites, and revenues from on-line gambling have been doubling each year. In 1997, gambling sites made $300 million on-line. In 1998 they made a further $650 million. In 2000, Internet gambling sites earned $2.2 billion, and by 2003 that figure is “expected to grow to $6.4 billion,” says a Reuters news report.

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The human cost of problem gambling includes families with no money for food

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Among young people, gambling is increasing at an alarming rate

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Children of compulsive gamblers have an increased risk of becoming problem gamblers themselves