News Articles

S.C. battling video poker; suicides up in gambling towns

COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP)–Add South Carolina to the list of states suffering from an acute case of gambling.
Through video poker, South Carolina offers “the nation’s widest-open gambling,” according to The Wall Street Journal in a front-page article Dec. 2.
“… if you want to do a laboratory test of unregulated gambling, South Carolina is it,” anti-gambling attorney Richard Gergel of Columbia told The Journal.
The 31,000 video poker machines in South Carolina — many in restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores — will take in an estimated $2 billion this year — as much as gas stations across the state. The entire state budget, meanwhile, is $5.4 billion.
Gamblers Anonymous chapters have jumped to 27 in South Carolina; fours years ago, there were eight.
When the state legislature returns in January, it will face six new bills — and 17 from last session — to regulate, eliminate or hold a statewide referendum on video poker, according to a report in The State, the state capital’s daily newspaper, Dec. 19.
Anti-gambling forces are slated to begin plotting strategy against video poker in a Jan. 16 noon meeting at the Baptist convention building in Columbia. Groups which have worked together in previous anti-gambling battles include the South Carolina Baptist Convention, the South Carolina Christian Action Council and Concerned Citizens Against Legalized Gambling.
Several lawsuits also are pending in state courts, The Journal reported. One contends video poker is a lottery, and thus unconstitutional; another seeks damages on behalf of thousands of gamblers; a third seeks enforcement of the law banning alcohol sales on gambling premises, a ruling that could force more than half of all businesses with video machines to choose between liquor and poker.
South Carolina, compared to other states with video poker, “has almost no rules and the ones it does have are unenforced,” William Thompson, an expert on gambling and public policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told The Wall Street Journal.
“There’s no assurance that the machines are honest, there’s no electronic monitoring of revenues,” Thompson said. “It’s a farce.” Video poker’s $2 billion ’97 take is based on honor- system reporting by gambling operators, The Journal noted.
On the national gambling front, in the first large-scale statistical investigation of gambling and suicide, suicide rates in Las Vegas, with the highest suicide rate in the nation, and Reno, Nev., and Atlantic City, N.J., are up to four times higher than comparably sized cities where gambling is not legal.
The study, by David Phillips, a professor of sociology at the University of California in San Diego, of death certificates in the three gambling-oriented cities, is reported in the December issue of the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.
Phillips told The New York Times he got the idea for the study in talking to Gamblers Anonymous telephone counselors in Texas. Callers would say, “I’ve embezzled all the company’s funds, my kids can’t go to college, there’s no money left for groceries and I don’t see any way out,” Phillips recounted.
Phillips told The Times that because of a long lag in the compilation of death certificates nationwide, it is not yet possible to determine whether a similar increase in suicide rates has occurred in the 24 states that have legalized casino-type gambling in the last 10 years.
Phillips reported that 1 in 25 visitor deaths on average in Las Vegas is a suicide, four times the national average of 1 in 100 visitor deaths. A visitor death is defined as a death of a person from another state while visiting the city in question.
Phillips also noted that Americans spend nearly as much on gambling — 6 percent of the G.N.P., according to a Standard & Poor’s Corporation 1996 survey — as they do on family groceries — 8 percent, The Times reported.
In South Carolina, video poker moved from “a back-room game of dubious legality” to “judicial and legislative sanction in the 1990s as a low-stakes, small-scale exception to the (state’s) general gambling ban,” The Journal recounted. “But because of the weak enforcement, legal loopholes and aggressive litigation by video-poker operators, this narrow breach has blown open to create a multibillion-dollar industry that now afflicts the state’s soul. The courts, churches and legislatures are now locked in a fevered debate over whether the game should be banned outright, or heavily regulated and taxed to support education.”
In 1994, 12 of the state’s 46 counties voted to ban video poker. But industry lawyers convinced the state Supreme Court in 1996 that the vote was unconstitutional because the state criminal code must be uniformly applied.
“They’ve hired the best lobbyists in the state and basically bought a lot of support with campaign money,” Darrell Jackson, a state senator and minister, told The Journal. Jackson acknowledged receiving contributions from video-poker operators when he first ran for office in 1992 — and later voting in support of industry positions.
Jackson told The Journal he changed his position, however, when one of his constituents came to him for help — as a minister, not as a politician. The woman had gambled away her savings and even spent money her teenage daughter had earned working at a fast-food restaurant and set aside for her college education.
In September, a 10-day-old infant died in a sweltering car while here mother played video poker for hours, The Journal reported, quoting one addict as saying, “I’ve lost $38,000 in three years, but what I’ve really lost is my character. I’ve lied to my mother, to my wife, to my children. I’d get home two hours late and stop to smear myself with engine grease so I could tell my wife I had battery problems.” Another woman told the newspaper, “I wish this was outlawed, because I’m addicted and I can’t stop.”
“Video poker is the crack cocaine of gambling,” Carl Carlin, an addiction counselor at a psychiatric hospital in Aiken, S.C., told The Journal, calling it “insidious” in its “immediacy, intensity and the way it takes over your life.”