Compulsive gambling is growing with legal gaming 3.8 million in U.S., Canada have disorders, Harvard study finds


WASHINGTON -- The number of compulsive gamblers rose by more than a million adults during the gambling boom of the past two decades, a new comprehensive study shows.

A Harvard Medical School study estimates that 3.8 million adults in the United States and Canada suffer from serious gambling disorders, an increase of more than 1.6 million since casinos and lotteries exploded across America.

"People will learn that if they continue to gamble, they will eventually lose," said Howard Shaffer, a Harvard psychology professor who led the study. "When people realize it isn't good for them, they will adjust their behavior. The question is how long will that take and can we afford it?"

In the United States, every state except Utah and Hawaii offers some form of legal gambling, from lotteries and horse racing to slot machines and blackjack. Twenty-six states allow casino gambling, and entrepreneurs are flooding the Internet to make it easier to bet from home on a computer.

The growth in compulsive gambling among adults, Shaffer said, is linked to the emergence of gambling as an accepted part of America's entertainment culture, where casinos are advertised as family resorts and lotteries are touted by governments as the path to easy millions. About one-third of U.S. households gambled at a casino in 1996, according to a survey by Harrah's, a casino operator.

"The people who are most sensitive to social sanctions or social pressures only began to gamble when it became legal in more places," Shaffer said.

Harvard researchers analyzed data on gambling addiction published between 1977 and 1997. Described by the American Psychiatric Association as an impulse- control disorder, pathological gambling involves people who are obsessively drawn to betting, often ignoring their own financial risk by bankrolling their wagers on credit or fraud.

Although the Harvard study concluded that the majority of people who gamble have little or no adverse consequences, researchers estimate that 1.29 percent of adults are pathological gamblers, up from 0.84 percent in 1993. Earlier estimates suggested the percentage was between 0.77 percent and 5 percent, with higher levels in communities where gambling was easily accessible.

Researchers, however, did not find any increase in the rate of gambling disorders among adolescents or those with psychiatric or substance abuse problems -- a surprising discovery since pathological gambling is much more prevalent in these groups compared with the general population.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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