Last month, the University at Buffalo held what was touted in the student newspaper as its first annual Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament.
You could almost feel the staff at the Gambling Recovery Program at Jewish Family Services cringe through the phone lines when told about the event. The growing popularity of poker is just one more trend helping to increase the number of people calling the agency for help with gambling problems.
“The biggest selling Christmas present was Texas Hold ‘Em chips – no matter where you went, you could buy them,” says Marlene Schillinger, executive director of Jewish Family Services, which runs Western New York’s only gambling addiction program.
In the last two years, the agency has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of people calling for help with compulsive or problem gambling. Meanwhile, funding has remained at about $140,000 from the State Office of Mental Health, which funds eight agencies statewide from a $1.5 million pool that comes from the New York State Lottery.
“That’s part of the challenge. We’ve gotten the same funding from the state now for the last six to seven years,” Schillinger says. “We’ve had the fastest growing gambling outlets and we haven’t received any formal increase.”
More opportunities for gambling
The increase in clients can be partly attributed to the continued expansion of gambling facilities since 2002: the opening of the Seneca Niagara Casino, Seneca Allegany Casino, Fairgrounds Gaming at Hamburg and the expansion of Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls, Ont. Other contributing effects include poker’s emergence as an activity for all ages, the increase in daily lotto draws from once to twice per day and video lotto game winners every four minutes instead of five. Add to that the number of nonprofits, churches and schools utilizing charity auctions and bingo for fundraising.
“Everyone assumes that it’s the Judi Qq casino and casino gambling that is the only sort of gambling that might lead to a problem,” says Renee Wert, director of the Gambling Recovery Program. “We still have people with problems with bingo, the lottery and sports.”
For most people, such events are not a problem. Most of the population is not susceptible and can play a game here or there with no ill effect. But for the 1 percent of the population who are compulsive or addicted, and the 2 to 3 percent of the population who identify as problem gamblers, it’s like storing gasoline next to a fireplace.
“People view it as a recreational activity and for many people, that’s exactly what it is. But for some people, it’s a problem,” she says.
Both Schillinger and Wert were careful to point out that they are not against casino gaming or gambling.
“Most people don’t have gambling problems and probably will never develop one. We’re looking at something that is a problem for a minority of people,” she says.
In fact, the percentage of the population that is affected by problematic gambling is quite small: 1 percent of the population is classified as pathological gamblers, while 2 to 3 percent are classified as problem gamblers. However, a national gambling impact study released in the mid 90s that studied a 25 year period found that communities that have a casino within 50 miles had double the prevalence rate, Wert says.
“If you look at our proximity to a casino, it could be double,” she says.