A costly ‘great escape’

Portland State student Dan Weber, 24, steps into a smoky north Portland bar, passes the bartender and heads straight toward the chiming video poker machines lining the back wall. He reaches into his wallet and slides a crisp $20 into the machine.

“I start out betting four,” Weber said. “That way the bonus round will pay out more. Sometimes I bet the limit.”

The week before, Weber said he lost nearly $500 in less than three days.

Weber played for less than five minutes and was already down to $2, so he decided to switch games.

“Jacks or better,” Weber said. “At least I can double up.”

Weber continued to play, but had no luck with the double ups. His $20 had taken him to his last hand, and he dipped into his pocket to grab another bill.

Although this is how many of his nights begin, Weber said that he does not yet feel like he has a problem.

While repeatedly feeding money to a machine may not appeal to everyone, Chi Baker, a PSU graduate and counselor for the Oregon Health Sciences University Behavioral Clinic in downtown Portland, said that for many young people, gambling can be very exciting.

“Gambling is a great escape. Everything else just fades away,” he said.

Weber said that he knows that feeling well, and sometimes he doesn’t have any concept of the world around him.

According to the Oregon Department of Human Services an estimated 5.6 percent of college students have a gambling problem, and between the ages of 18 to 25, a gambler loses an average of $30,000 each year while racking up $20,000 to $25,000 dollars in credit card debt.

Baker said he has seen an increase in gambling among college-age people, although there are not yet many statistics to back it up. He said that the biggest problems he sees are video poker and an increased popularity of Texas hold ’em.

“It looks cool on TV,” Baker said. “They see the cars, the women, the $100,000 jackpot.”

Baker said that the combination of such television programs and college students having easy access to money that they feel no attachment to, make it easy to be sucked in.

“Having access to video poker is horrible,” Baker said. “The accessibility is huge.”

According to Baker, gambling is like no other addiction and it is one of the hardest to alleviate. Unlike substance abusers, a gambler is going to have a difficult time getting away from their form of abuse.

“You can’t tell a gambling addict to never be around money again,” Baker said. “Money rules the world. We need it to survive.”

The Oregon Lottery was created in 1985 after being approved by voters in November of 1984 for just that.

“Our purpose is to earn money,” said Marlene Missner, a public relations representative for the Oregon Lottery.

The lottery was created to bring in extra revenue for economic development and job creation. In 1995 funding for public schools was also added to the list, and in 1999 the funding of parks and natural resources was added. An unpaid team of five persons is appointed to the state lottery commission, and is charged with the operation of the Oregon Lottery.

In addition to the money given to these funds, the Oregon Lottery is also charged with paying for treatment of gambling addicts and funding preventative commercials and advertisement.

Dr. Jeff Marotta is a clinical psychologist for the Oregon Department of Human Services who works directly with the Oregon Lottery. Marotta said that 1 percent, or about $4.56 million, of annual lottery revenue go towards these treatment programs.

Marotta said that he does not feel a conflict of interest working for a state that is so heavily supported through gambling revenues. He said the state just needs to keep taking steps toward preventing these gambling problems.

“It’s going to be here for a while,” Marotta said. “It’s widely accepted. We are taking steps to keep it from getting out of control.”

Marotta’s main concern for college-age people is online gambling. These sites are based offshore and are illegal within the United States.

“Most online sites target college-age people,” Dr. Marotta said. “They set up real tournaments with real people. They let you start for free and give you opportunities to bet money. It starts with wanting to get better at Texas hold ’em.”

Weber, the PSU student who gambles frequently, said that he has not been involved in online gambling, but is aware that it exists. Weber and many like him say that they see the Oregon Lottery doing “good things.” Sharon Williams, a gambling counselor at Cascadia Treatment Center in southeast Portland said that the acceptance of gambling is very prevalent in Oregon.

Williams has heard the “good things” argument before. She said that many people say, “This gambling money that I’m spending is going toward schools and to the state of Oregon.”

Marotta said that about 10 percent of the states overall budget is paid for with lottery dollars.

“I think most (lottery revenue) goes towards education,” Marotta said.

According to Baker, only about 0.3 percent of lottery revenue goes towards schools, a little more than $12 million of the $415 million in fiscal year 2005. Baker’s opinion also differs slightly from that of Marotta in the state’s involvement in gambling.

“It’s basically like legalizing cocaine,” Baker said. “The state has become so reliant on gambling that if they didn’t have it, the state would go bankrupt.”

The state constitution states that 18 percent is to go to an education and stability fund, 15 percent is to go towards a parks and natural resources fund, and the state is free to use the remainder how it sees fit, and according to the Oregon Lottery that amount usually goes to the schools as well.

Missner said that the allocation of these funds was written in broad terminology so the state could use the money more liberally.

The Oregon Lottery is projected to earn nearly one billion dollars over the next year. Some of the money earned in the past has helped build prisons, school buildings, the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Money is not always given directly to schools and universities throughout the state.

Williams said that she has seen the number of patients the same age as Weber slowly increasing.

“I personally met with someone who was 23 today,” she said.

A lot of parents have been coming to the clinic to talk about their children with gambling problems, she said. Some college students have been troubling family for money, failing classes or dropping out of school all together. But even though the younger people are coming in, William also sees a lot of them leave before their treatment is over.

“They don’t stay around long,” Williams said. “They don’t feel a connection with the older gamblers.”