ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–The mounting fallout of video poker in Louisiana — the state where it is most accessible — is evidencing itself in statistics and, moreover, people’s lives.
Formerly approved statewide by the Louisiana legislature, video poker received favorable votes to continue in 31 of the state’s 64 parishes in last November’s election.
Statistics warn of a looming catastrophe from Louisiana’s foray into video poker:
— As many as 159,000 Louisiana residents are problem or pathological gamblers.
— Problem gamblers in Louisiana spend about twice as much of their income on video poker as their counterparts in other states.
— Gambling is especially a problem among 18- to 21-year-olds in the state.
Still more graphic, however, are the stories of people overrun with gambling debt.
Reece Middleton knows many of the stories. As executive director of the Louisiana Association of Compulsive Gambling in Shreveport, he knows of people thousands and thousands of dollars in debt, people who have lost families and homes, people who have squandered all and find themselves at the point of complete despair.
For instance, he tells of a young waitress in north Louisiana who tearfully told of stopping at an establishment with video poker every day on her way home where she would gamble all she had at the time — wages, tips, whatever.
A single mother, she had no other family who could help. While overcome by the problem she faced, her most poignant concern was her children, Middleton said. Christmas was coming — and she had no means of buying presents.
What could she do? Where could she go for help?
Where, indeed? Unfortunately, in Louisiana, resources to help people with gambling problems are sorely lacking, Middleton said.
Many people, however, do not see the problem, even those in the church, he said. Speak of alcohol addiction or drug addiction, and it is pretty clear the differences a chemical makes in a person’s body. But gambling addiction does not necessitate outside chemicals. It is harder to understand. It is easier to dismiss as simply a problem of weak will.
“But it is an addiction,” Middleton insisted. “It does exist.”
Indeed, there are numerous similarities between compulsive gambling and substance abuse, Middleton noted. For instance, both involve an inability to stop, denial, severe depression and mood swings and preoccupation with the activity. Compulsive gamblers remember their first win just like alcoholics remember their first drink, both using their activities as a means of escaping pain.
There are differences as well — and those make gambling addiction even scarier in some ways.
For instance, compulsive gambling is a hidden addiction. Compulsive gamblers cannot be tested in a scientific way and can continue to function at the employment site despite their addiction. In addition, there is no overdose point, no saturation mark for a compulsive gambler. The problem can get bigger and bigger and create tremendous financial problems — often in a relatively short time.
Indeed, video poker is especially insidious at this point. A “big” win on a video poker machine is $500. For a compulsive gambler, that is not very big — and does not go far in offsetting losses. That is why Middleton and others are seeing speeded-up cycles of gambling addiction. Many people are not enjoying a true winning phase but are moving straight to the losing phase and quickly into the desperation phase.
Once there, they find the most disturbing difference between other addictions and gambling — the lack of resources and understanding of the problem.
Middleton is determined to change that. He is working through his organization to educate Louisiana leaders and encourage the Louisiana legislature to set aside adequate money to help those hurt by gambling. Middleton and his group do not take a stand on gambling as right or wrong but simply seek to help those hurt by the activity.
Middleton pointed out the state sets aside portions of oil money for pollution control and portions of alcohol money for treatment centers. “Why can’t we do the same with gambling? Whatever your view of gambling is, some people have real trouble with it. … And it’s only fair that those who benefit from it help those who have trouble with it.”
And it is only logical the church get involved as well, Middleton and others said.
Churches already play a front-line role with many people in trouble. And with so few other resources available, churches can expect to encounter even more than their share of persons whose lives are falling apart because of gambling.
To become involved, churches can offer Gamblers Anonymous groups and support groups for family members affected by gambling, for example, Middleton said. Meanwhile, leaders must learn how to recognize addictive behavior and where to refer persons who need help. Indeed, in Mississippi, Dick Langford has the Mississippi Council on Compulsive Gambling to host training seminars for church leaders about how to recognize addictive behavior and how to help.
The problem of addressing gambling addiction now is a critical one, Langford insisted, noting 13-year-old kids are getting involved in gambling and no one knows how bad the situation will get. “We don’t know,” Middleton agreed. “We’ve never had a proliferation of gambling like this.”
However, Langford and Middleton do know how insidious compulsive gambling is — and what kind of personal, family, financial, work and relationship difficulties it can cause.
“When you’re gambling-addicted, you carry your addiction with you everyday,” Langford said, holding up a credit card and several folded bills. “The person with the gambling problem has the substance of it with him or her every day.
“And that makes it that much harder to deal with.”
Left unaddressed, the problem will escalate. Newspapers periodically report instances of murder as a result of gambling woes. And Middleton noted suicides for compulsive gamblers are 6 percent higher than among alcoholics.
But it does not have to get that far to be disastrous, Middleton said. “If it causes a problem, it is a problem. If there’s a problem created by one’s gambling behaviors in any area of life and the gambling behavior continues nonetheless, that is a problem.”
The solution is to find help — like the north Louisiana waitress did.
Middleton helped the woman at several points. He found her a Gamblers Anonymous group, which Middleton contends is key to any treatment of the problem. He helped her outline a different route to and from work — one that did not pass by the video poker machines she usually stopped to play. He also helped the young woman draft a plan for setting aside money for Christmas.
The woman began to change her behavior. She called Middleton at one point, excited that she had been able to get to a local store and buy a few Christmas gifts for her children. Then, Middleton called her on Christmas evening to see how the day had gone — but she was not home. He left a message.
Later, she called back to tell Middleton that she had been at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.
And, oh yes, she added, Christmas had been gambling-free — and absolutely wonderful.