Gambling is not pathological

October 20, 1995

IN THE long-standing debate over whether gambling casinos should be permitted in Maryland, The Sun has consistently argued that communities which tolerate casinos will experience a marked decline in their quality of life and the creation of a new population of compulsive gamblers. In Maryland, invariably the latter argument involves citing a 1990 study purporting to demonstrate the dangers and costs of ''compulsive gambling in Maryland.''

That study, invoked by The Sun in its Oct. 1 editorial, ''An apple in the Garden of Eden'' is cited as evidence that the introduction of gambling would mean the creation of tens of thousands of ''compulsive gamblers.''

The figures cited come from a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (December, 1989) in which telephone interviews were used to ascertain the prevalence of pathological gambling in New Jersey and Maryland. The study, replete with high participation refusal rates of 34-35 percent, estimated that Maryland had 17,400 to 69,310 ''probable pathological gamblers.''

To most people a ''pathological'' problem is one over which the sufferer has no control. In the NIMH study the researchers used the South Oaks Gambling Screen which comprises 20 questions, only two of which deal with the ability to control one's gambling. (Sample question: ''Have people criticized your gambling?'') To qualify as a ''problem'' gambler, one need answer ''yes'' to any three or four of the 20 questions. Nor is there a consistent qualitative distinction to differentiate between what are classified ''problem'' and ''probable pathological'' gamblers. Answering five questions ''yes'' rather than four will bump the respondent -- from ''problem'' to ''pathological.''

Methodologically deficient and/or imprecisely reported health statistics often become the basis for social policy.

Citings of the NIMH figures on the prevalence of compulsive gambling, based on questionable measures and telephone surveys, have become frequent over the last five years -- and then often exaggerated by media.

We would like to make clear that we find the quality of life arguments persuasive -- by a close call -- in arguing against allowing the introduction of certain types of legalized gambling in Maryland at this time. The depiction, albeit selective, of the increases in rape, robberies, burglaries and car thefts, not to mention the adverse effect on legitimate businesses in New Jersey, Florida and New York, is difficult to fully explain away through the argument of false analogy.

None of these good points against the introduction of gambling casinos in our neighborhoods, however, lends any support at all to the fuzzy and unscientific claims about ''pathological gamblers.''

Richard Vatz

Lee Weinberg

Towson

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