Problem Pathological Gambling Issues In The US

Today, proponents of gambling argue that, while gambling may be abused like many other activities, it is generally a form of entertainment practiced responsibly by millions of Americans. To its credit, the commercial casino industry has recently promoted several initiatives aimed at encouraging and understanding responsible “gambling” behavior, including the production of professional training materials for casino employees and guidelines for advertising.

But, when one talks about the social benefits of gambling as entertainment, opponents of gambling are quick to qualify this benefit, noting that gambling itself is an inherently flawed product because a certain percentage of those who engage in it will always suffer problems. Proponents point to evidence that the vast majority of those who gamble do not suffer or do not admit to having problem or pathological gambling problems. Yet among those for whom gambling is a regular activity, the risks appear much higher. A survey of 530 patrons at gambling establishments conducted for this Commission showed that 13 percent of those patrons were classified as lifetime problem or pathological gamblers.

In fairness, many segments of the gambling industry have begun to address this issue. But an enormous amount must be done by the public and private sectors, as well as by researchers, treatment providers, insurance programs and individuals to address the negative and harmful consequences of compulsive gambling. This is discussed in greater detail in the chapter on “Problem and Pathological Gambling.” For the purposes of this chapter, the Commission will discuss the impact of problem and pathological gambling behavior on individuals. In discussing our findings, the Commission must rely on the limited research available, anecdotal information and our own observations as the Commission traveled across the nation. While the Commission agree that this discussion should be shaped by scientific analysis, as evidenced by the commitment of more than half of our budget to research studies, the Commission cannot discount the weight of the personal testimony presented to us by individuals who have experienced these problems first-hand.

For millions of Americans, problem and pathological gambling is a serious consequence of legal and illegal gambling. Part of our challenge has been to pin down the exact number of individuals suffering from these disorders. Virtually every study varies in these estimations. For example, a Harvard University meta-analysis concluded that approximately 1.6 percent, or 3.2 million, of the American adult population are pathological gamblers. 92 The combined rate of problem and pathological gambling in 17 states where surveys have been conducted ranges from 1.7 to 7.3 percent. 93 In Oregon, the lifetime prevalence of problem and pathological gambling is 4.9 percent. 94 Recent studies in Mississippi and Louisiana indicate that 7 percent of adults in these states have been classified as problem or pathological gamblers. 95

The two principal studies sponsored by this Commission found that the prevalence of problem and pathological gambling in America is troubling. NRC estimates that, in a given year, approximately 1.8 million adults in the United States are pathological gamblers. NORC found that approximately 2.5 million adults are pathological gamblers. Another three million of the adult population are problem gamblers. Over 15 million Americans were identified as at-risk gamblers. About 148 million Americans are low-risk gamblers. Approximately 30 million Americans have never gambled at all. 96 While some believe that lifetime prevalence rates are overstated, others believe that past year rates are understated.

92 Howard Shaffer, et. al., Estimating the Prevalence of Disordered Gambling Behavior in the United States and Canada: A Meta-Analysis (1997). 93 See Rachel Volberg, Gambling and Problem Gambling in New York: A 10-Year Replication Survey, 1986 to 1996, Report to the New York Council on Problem Gambling (1996) and Lynn S. Wallich, Gambling in Texas: 1995 Survey of Adult and Adolescent Behavior, Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (1996). Cited in Henry R. Lesieur, “Cost and Treatment of Pathological Gambling,” 556 Annals AAPSS, at 154 (March 1998). 94 Rachel A. Volberg, Gambling and Problem Gambling in Oregon: Report to the Oregon Gambling Addiction Treatment Foundation at 37 (August 26, 1997). 95 Rachel A. Volberg, Gambling and Problem Gambling in Mississippi: Report to the Mississippi Council on Compulsive Gambling at 31 (November 1996).