Gambling Addiction: Are Casino’s Creating Addicts?

Casino’s are a place of fun, right? They are if you are a recreational gambler. For gambling addicts they are like the street corner where the heroin user or meth addict meets their dealer. Just like drug dealers, casinos have ways of increasing the desire and dependency of their customers.

But, a casino wouldn’t use underhanded tactics to increase the addictiveness of its slot machines, would it? Yes, they would, and do. “Problem gamblers are worth a lot of money to casinos.” *

Casinos know who their top gamblers are and in fact make the most money from those that are addicted. A friend of mine who is a recreational gambler, not a problem gambler, wins fairly often  when he does gamble. The casino makes sure that when my friend visits he is given a beautiful suite, drink tokens and discounts to the shows and dinner. They treat him like royalty and make him feel special. That’s like the street dealer giving a little extra cocaine to the newbie to get him hooked.

I wasn’t in favor of Indian Casinos getting licensed, just like I’m not a fan of Prop 64 legalizing pot. I think we stressed, sometimes wounded human beings don’t need our temptations made more accessible. And, if we’re going to be tempted with advertising and availability, then there better be excellent prevention education and treatment available.

“Less than 40 years ago, casino gambling was illegal” except in Nevada and Atlantic City. With the Indian Gaming Act of 1988 we now have some 1,000 casinos operating in 40 states with $37 Billion spent annually.” ( *The Atlantic, Dec 2016) And, I’m not even going into the online gaming industry!

  • 1.1 to 1.6% of adults in the U.S. (3-4 million Americans) has a gambling disorder
  • Another 5-8 million adults meet the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for addiction but aren’t pathological (National Center for Responsible Gaming)
  • The Scientific American Journal states there are about 2 million problem gamblers and 20 million whose habit seriously interferes with work and social life
  • Women gamblers start later (age 34 vs. 20 for men) and the problem progresses faster than in men. 
  • Women tend to gamble to cope with stress or dissatisfaction
  • Men tend to gamble for the excitement, or the rush of action

When we think of a heroin or meth addict we know the power of those drugs to control lives. But gambling addiction can be just as destructive. It ruins the lives of thousands and affects loved ones in painful and destructive ways. One in five gambling addicts attempts suicide.

Gambling disorder DEFINED: an uncontrollable urge to gamble despite serious personal consequences with relationships, finances and physical and mental health.

I don’t get many calls from gambling addicts, but the ones that have stand out. A couple years ago, a problem gambler was referred by a local casino for counseling. This person did not want help, he wanted me to sign off on a consent form so he could regain entry to the casino. When I wouldn’t do so without counseling, he abruptly left, without paying for the session. Another client, a professional woman, came in intermittently at the request of her husband, who was about to leave her for her gambling problem. As far as I know, she’s gambling still.

Your Brain & Gambling:

Does gambling addiction affect the brain similarly to other addictions like meth or cocaine? Yes. Scientists, over the last twenty years, have been able to chart how the brain changes as addiction progresses. When we humans do something that keeps us alive or pass on our genes, the brain produces dopamine which feels satisfying. If we’re using meth or cocaine, or gambling, the feeling of reward or the HIGH is up to 10X as powerful.

Of course, the more the gambler gambles, the less the brain produces the feel good chemical dopamine. At the same time the links to the part of the brain that control impulses gets weaker which makes it harder and harder for the gambler, or addict, to stop. (*Scientific American)

Symptoms of Problem Gambling:

  • Spending more on gambling than can afford
  • Relationships are being negatively affected by gambling
  • Gambling is getting in the way of work
  • Inability to cut back or stop
  • Gambling increasing over time
  • Stealing or commiting fraud to support gambling
  • Getting loans to cover debts

Treatment Options:

If you believe someone you know or love, talk with them. Ask them if they believe they’re having a problem. Let them know you care about them and that there’s help available. Avoid judgment or moralizing.

What I know is that once someone asks for or is open to help, healing is a process that takes time and slips or relapses are part of that process. This fact makes it tough for addicts and family members to hang in long enough to break the addictive cycle and return the brain to more normal functioning.

Basic options for treatment include the 12 Step program Gamblers Anonymous. Google Gamblers Anonymous groups in your local area for meeting times and dates. There are also on-line G.A. groups.

Outpatient treatment can be appropriate for those who are still working. Outpatient treatment is typically 12-16 weeks of 2 or 3 X a week group counseling.

Inpatient treatment is typically 28 days of residential treatment with group and individual counseling and family counseling as well as required 12 step meetings. 

Some medications help some problem gamblers – see your doctor.

As with any other addiction that gets to the place where there are serious relational, financial, or health consequences, getting better requires time, attention and commitment. You start where you are.

Feel free to use all or part of this blog as long as you list my name, website and contact information.

Lynn Telford-Sahl, M.A. Psychology, Certified Addiction Counselor, Private Practice, Modesto (209) 492-8745 www.addictionmodesto.com

Lynn is the author of Intentional JOY: How to Turn Stress, Fear & Addiction into Freedom.

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