March 1, 2013

Maine expands support for gamblers who can't stop

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

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.

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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: gambling addictions.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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