Casinos are relatively new to Maine, but state officials are drawing attention to an issue that often goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of gaming opportunities: problem gambling.

The state’s Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, in cooperation with other state agencies and the casinos, will host a conference March 7 in Waterville to increase awareness of the issue and encourage responsible wagering.

Problem gambling can include an addiction, or compulsion to gamble.

“Most people can gamble for fun and do it in a responsible way,” said Christine Theriault, prevention manager for the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services.

But for a small group – estimated nationally at 2 to 3 percent of gamblers – it progresses to the point of dipping into savings and money for other needs and becomes an addiction that “just comes to a point where it consumes their lives.”

Theriault said it’s wrong to blame such problems solely on the casinos, noting that many forms of legal gambling predate the casinos by decades, including state-run lotteries and legal bingo games.

She said the state’s two casinos – Hollywood Casino in Bangor and Oxford Casino in Oxford – support the effort to prevent problem gambling.

Under the law governing the casinos, some of the money the operations pay in taxes goes to the state office to help pay for prevention and treatment of problem gambling.

For the last two years, $50,000 has gone into that effort each year. The amount is doubling this year with Oxford Casino now open, Theriault said.

That funding pales compared with some other states. In Massachusetts, where three full-service casinos are expected to open in the next two years, the operators will have to pay $5 million into a trust fund to pay for anti-addiction efforts, along with 5 percent of the casinos’ tax revenue, for a total estimated at $20 million a year.

Theriault said Maine has been increasing its efforts, even with much more limited funding. She said the state has prepared brochures to help people identify friends or family members who have gambling problems. The brochures are available at the casinos and by calling the statewide 211 phone system.

Also, a new “Safe Bet” program is starting, with slogans printed on cocktail napkins distributed in the casinos: “Know Your Limit and Stay Within It,” “Be Smart Before You Start” and “Have Fun. Stop When You’re Done.”

She said the state also is creating a database of providers who treat gambling addiction.

Theriault said the state’s nonprofit Maine Council on Problem Gambling is gearing up again, after not functioning for several years.

Scott Gagnon, president of the council’s interim board, said board resignations and funding problems made the board essentially go out of business. Now, officials are working to get it running again to help make more people aware that addictive gambling is a problem.

Theriault said gambling is essentially a form of substance abuse for some people because the “high” that comes from winning makes the brain produce a substance that creates pleasure — and is addictive.

She said some people actually have physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop gambling.

Theriault said there are no figures on how many problem gamblers are in Maine and whether the problem is growing. She said the number of calls to 211 about problem gambling is about five to 10 a month, a number that held steady from January 2011 to August 2012, the most recent numbers collected.

But Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said casinos and other forms of legal gambling tend to remove any stigma around gambling.

That has led to a sharp increase in the number of people who gamble, Whyte said. In the 1970s, only about 60 percent of Americans said they had ever gambled. In more recent surveys, that number has risen to about 85 percent, he said.

Whyte said casinos will support efforts to deal with problem gambling. For those with a long-term view, that’s good business, he said, because a sharp rise in problem gambling — and related issues such as increased crime — could lead states to limit any extension of gambling or even scale back what’s already allowed.

Lesa Densmore, who will give the keynote address at next week’s conference, said the expansion of gambling opportunities fed her addiction, which began in high school in Gardiner with bingo games.

It continued at the University of Maine, which she attended on an athletic scholarship, and really grew when she was in her mid-20s, when she started going to casinos and playing video poker, which she said is “video crack” for gambling addicts.

Densmore, who now lives in New York, speaks about gambling addiction and offers treatment programs. She said Thursday that she took steps to deal with the problem on her own, including signing up for “self-exclusion” programs to bar herself from casinos. That program is available at Maine’s two casinos.

Densmore said she soon found herself driving farther, to casinos where she wasn’t barred, until she checked into a residential treatment program that also addressed underlying emotional problems behind her addiction.

Densmore said she applauds Maine for holding a conference on problem gambling relatively soon after allowing casinos to open. She said a rise in gambling addiction is almost certain to accompany an increase in gambling opportunities.

“You’re going to find more and more problems happen in the state of Maine,” she said. “It’s inevitable.”

 

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com