With two casinos operating in Maryland and more on the horizon, state officials on Thursday unveiled new programs — including training counselors and promoting a toll-free help line — to strengthen the social safety net for people addicted to betting.
The programs, overseen by the new Maryland Alliance for Responsible Gambling, mark the first major influx of state money for gambling addiction since the mid-1980s. And they present an intriguing paradox: The presence of casinos in Maryland might, in a backhanded way, provide help for problem gamblers.
"This is an effort that is long overdue," said Del. Kirill Reznik, a Montgomery County Democrat. He noted that state residents have been encouraged to bet for years on Keno, Powerball, instant lottery games and, of course, at the racetracks.
Mental health advocates agree. They've said the problem here has been ignored, in part because gambling is not as obvious an addiction as alcoholism or drug abuse.
The advocates note that Maryland has only two nationally certified gambling addiction counselors and half the state's counties do not have anyone with even cursory training in gambling addiction. An existing help line is so poorly promoted that one advocate said it is practically a secret.
"We would say that the state of Maryland has shirked its responsibility," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "They are either ignorant of the true rate of gambling problems in Maryland, or they are indifferent."
The prospect that casinos would cause a spike in social ills — divorce, bankruptcy and crime — was a key reason many Maryland lawmakers gave for opposing state-sponsored gambling. So far there's been no evidence that the two casinos have frayed the social fabric in their communities, though experts say it will take years to know the impact of gambling.
The 2007 state law that laid the groundwork for five casinos included provisions for stemming gambling addiction. Gamblers have already lost $77 million playing slots here.
Maryland will use some of that revenue to pay for and promote a toll-free help line, the state's health department will train substance abuse counselors to treat gambling addiction, and the department will make some money available to pay for treating the uninsured.
The Maryland Lottery is adding resources, too. The agency paid for a website with information about problem gambling and will put the help line's 1-800 number on all tickets.
"It is not in anyone's interest to have people with a gambling problem in casinos," said Stephen L. Martino, director of the lottery agency. A pathological gambler — one who can't stop betting — can cost the state about $12,000 in social services costs, according to a 2008 University of Maryland study on the impacts of slots.
The agency is also overseeing an "opt-out" program that allows self-identified addicts to ban themselves from casinos. Anyone on the list caught on the gambling floor will be charged with trespassing and any winnings will be confiscated.
The opt-out program was officially launched Thursday, but 12 people had already signed up. The idea is modeled after programs in other states. Pennsylvania, with five casinos, has 2,100 people on its list, Martino said.
Maryland has a toll-free number for gambling addiction, but it's not funded through the state. Calls are routed to a national center in Shreveport, La., where staff have a list of counselors or can refer people to free support groups.
In the first 10 months of last year there were 3,000 calls from Marylanders, said Joanna Franklin, president of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling. "At this time we are operating something that looks like a secret help line," Franklin said.
She does not yet have data from November, after the first casino opened, but she does not expect the numbers to change significantly.
The largest chunk of calls — 936 — came from Baltimore, where a 3,750-machine casino is planned. Typical calls come from wives worried about their husband's habits, or siblings who say they can't continue to bail out a brother or sister.
Experts say the severity of problem gambling tends to increase within a 50-mile radius of a casino. "The more access you have to higher stakes and higher-speed gambling, the worse your problems are going to get," said Whyte, with the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene surveyed state residents to determine a pre-casino baseline of gambling habits. Preliminary results show that 90 percent of those surveyed have gambled at least once in their lives, and just over 15 percent gamble once a week.
The same study — conducted a month before the first casino opened in Perryville in October — identified 2.5 percent to 4 percent of respondents as problem gamblers. Those are people who will "chase their winnings" and continue to bet even after they've lost more than they can afford.
Those results mirror national data, experts say. The study will be done again in five years to look for trends.
Local officials in Perryville and Berlin, where the Ocean Downs casino opened in February, have not detected any spike in gambling-related social ills such as divorce, bankruptcy or theft.
But local officials and mental health experts say that six months of casino play is too soon to know what and where the negative impacts will be.
Those seeking information about gambling addictions can call 1-800-522-4700 or visit http://www.mdgamblinghelp.org.