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When gambling puts you at risk

For some people, casinos and gaming can become an addiction. But what is problem gambling, and who is susceptible?

Published August 23, 2004

In Sunday's Floridian, we brought you a package of stories about the variety of casino gambling venues in the Tampa Bay area and tips on how to enjoy them.

For most people, gambling is entertainment. But for some, it can become an addiction that empties bank accounts and turns lives upside down.

The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling Inc. is a nonprofit organization under contract to the state of Florida to help people affected by problem and compulsive gambling. It is funded by proceeds from the Florida Lottery and from the Seminole Tribe's casinos, fees for training it provides, and donations.

Its toll-free 24-hour help line, 1-888-236-4848, and its Web site, provide resources for those seeking help with problem gambling.

Nationally, problem and compulsive gambling costs about $5-billion annually in productivity reduction, social services and creditor losses. Studies commissioned by the council show that in Florida about 650,000 older adults (older than 55) and about 115,000 teens ages 13 to 17 are compulsive or problem gamblers. Although compulsive gambling can affect anyone, professionals, including doctors, lawyers, judges and athletes, are among those most at risk. One-third of problem gamblers are women.

Laura Letson, program consultant for the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, answered our questions about problem gambling.

What is the difference between ordinary gambling and compulsive gambling?

The overwhelming majority of people who gamble don't have a problem with it. But pathological gambling, often called compulsive gambling, is a mental health disorder. It's classified as one by the American Psychiatric Association.

Compulsive gambling becomes all-consuming. It takes over people's lives. It can have a devastating effect.

What kinds of people are most susceptible to problem gambling?

It really does cut across all age categories, all economic, cultural and educational categories. But one of the more vulnerable groups of people are older adults who are dealing with the onset of retirement, with the loss of a loved one, with being lonely. While their gambling may start out as a social activity, they may find themselves doing things they've never done before.

For young kids, it's often a matter of peer pressure. They start with what they think is a friendly bet. It's a common part of their everyday language: "I'll bet you," "I dare you."

How many people in Florida are affected by compulsive gambling?

Our research shows that more than three-quarters of a million adults and more than 100,000 adolescents in the state are compulsive gamblers or at risk. Four percent of all youths ages 13 to 17 are compulsive gamblers, with another 8 percent at risk. For older adults (older than 55), it's 2.9 percent and 11.7 percent.

And those numbers don't include the thousands of other people adversely affected by gambling: family members, loved ones, friends, people they work with. Many of them will suffer the same symptoms compulsive gamblers have, the same depression, the same anxiety, the same sense of hopelessness, not to mention the economic impact.

Are compulsive gamblers more likely to have problems with other forms of addiction?

It's not uncommon for them to have problems with alcohol or substance abuse. It isn't unusual to find people presenting in alcohol or drug-treatment programs whose primary problem is actually gambling. Or you may see someone who is trying to stop drinking or using drugs and turns to gambling. Either way, they may be substituting one addiction for another. It's also not uncommon for a person with these problems to have had a family member with drug, alcohol or gambling problems.

Does exposure to gambling venues or opportunities make compulsive gambling more likely?

Compulsive gamblers will always find something to bet on. They'll bet on the next car to drive by.

But we do see an effect from things like all the televised poker tournaments. Poker is now among our top three types of problem gambling, especially among adolescents. They're holding private card games, minitournaments, and it's because they're seeing it on TV. Ads, promotions for gambling venues, we know from people in treatment programs that those things can have an effect on compulsive gamblers.

Technology has made many forms of gambling more accessible, with credit card and ATM use in casinos, simulcast events and Internet gambling. Has this had an impact on problem gambling?

It's very early in terms of prevalence studies to know for sure. But when an individual does not have to leave home to gamble, it's a problem. When they can do something no one else knows about, it's a problem.

What services does the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling offer to those affected by the problem?

The council offers a 24-hour help line. We provide help for people without insurance who don't have access to other services.

We serve as a statewide advocate. We conduct and sponsor research. We work with the gambling venues to help them implement responsible gaming programs and to train their employees to understand the signs and what they can do.

If you look on the back of a lottery ticket, you'll see the help-line number. You'll also see it posted at the Seminole casinos and other venues.

We tell people to just ask themselves, is gambling interfering with anything in their lives? Family, job, school, friends? Are they borrowing to gamble, is their credit suffering, are they having self-destructive thoughts? If so, they can get help.


Compulsive gambling does not discriminate based upon age, gender, income, education or ethnicity and anyone can be at risk.

Do you:

Lose time from work or school or experience difficulties in other aspects of your life because of gambling?

Borrow money to pay gambling debts, place bets or solve financial problems?

Hide betting slips, lottery tickets or other signs of gambling from family members, friends or others?

Argue with family members or friends because of gambling?

Gamble as a way to escape personal or professional problems?

Experience difficulty sleeping because of gambling?

Continue to gamble to recover losses from previous bets?

Lie to family members, friends or colleagues about how much you gamble or the amount lost?

Become restless or irritable when trying to cut down, control or stop gambling?

Experience depression or have self-destructive thoughts because of gambling?

Is a loved one at risk?

Identifying a gambling problem can be very difficult, particularly in others, as there are no visual or physical symptoms displayed. Examining a person's behavior could provide some clues. Looking for the following signs could point to a gambling problem:

Unaccounted blocks of time

Mood swings

Neglecting personal needs or responsibilities

Claiming a sudden need for money or loans

Borrowing money from family and friends

Being secretive or lying about money or gambling

Spending more time gambling than any other activity

Boasting to others about winning, often minimizing or denying losses and exaggerating wins

Missing work or school because of gambling

Arguing with a spouse, partner, other family members or friends because of gambling

Experiencing behavioral or personality changes when watching or listening to sports

Having difficulty sleeping or eating


If you answered yes to one or more questions, gambling may be a problem.

Source: Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling Web site,

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