Gambling lures young males

Your Money

May 16, 2004|By JULIE CLAIRE DIOP

AS I PACKED for my first visit to Las Vegas, I was sure that watching old ladies pour their life savings into slot machines would depress me. Within a day, I learned how to play craps and fantasized about walking away with my own stack of $100 chips.

When you're feeling lucky, chips seem like play money, making it easy to rack up hundreds of dollars in losses in a matter of minutes. Alcoholics need at least a weekend to go through $100 of cheap wine.

Although most people are able to gamble responsibly, 1 percent to 2 percent of the adult population have a diagnosable gambling problem, according to Christine Reilly at the Division on Addictions at Harvard Medical School. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 1 percent of the population are pathological gamblers and another 2 percent to 3 percent are problem gamblers.

Gambling goes hand in hand with other risky behaviors for young people, such as drinking and taking drugs. Those most at risk are males from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who think of gambling as investing and as an escape.

More than half of 14- to 18-year-old males have gambled for money by the end of high school, according to the Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Sixteen percent of high school girls said they had gambled.

States keep minors out of casinos, for the most part, but everyone is welcome at the Internet's unregulated gambling sites. More than 1 million Americans play casino-style games or make sports wagers for money on the Net, according to the Interactive Gaming Council, a trade association.

The U.S. government is hoping to stop the growth of Internet gambling. In anticipation of stricter regulations, most major banks, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citibank, have blocked their credit cards from being used on gambling sites. Stopping Net gambling, however, is an almost impossible task. Most gambling sites accept e-money, which can be purchased with a credit card.

Credit cards also make it easy to bet money you don't have. The average problem gambler who seeks counseling is $64,000 in debt and has maxed out 14 to 16 credit cards, according to Keith Whyte at the National Council on Problem Gambling.

For many young gamblers, the problem starts at home. Giving children lottery tickets on their birthdays is not so different from giving them a bottle of beer, Whyte says. The earlier children are introduced to gambling, the more likely they will grow up to become problem gamblers, he maintains.

There are many routes to recovery. While some are able to get better without intervention, Gamblers' Anonymous is a popular support group. Its 12-step program is "exactly like AA," says Phil, a GA spokesman and recovering compulsive gambler. (As in Alcoholics Anonymous, members of GA and the family-support group Gam-Anon do not use last names publicly.)

Many pathological gamblers also suffer from mental disorders, says Harvard's Reilly. Support groups are helpful, but only a mental health professional can diagnose and treat illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

E-mail Julie Claire Diop at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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