Video slot machines increase gambling addiction concerns

Governor Ted Kulongoski ignited a heated debate when he decided to allow slot machine-type games in Oregon bars and taverns in order to meet gaps in the state budget. He announced in December that the plan would provide funding for the state police and public schools.

But the debate between the Oregon Restaurant Association and advocates for Oregon public schools over who gets the biggest cut of the expected revenue may be overshadowing another issue with video gambling machines.

The greater appeal of slot machine-type games may increase revenue that Oregon badly needs, but at the cost of increasing numbers of people who develop gambling problems.

Since Oregon decided to legalize video gambling in 1991, the state has experienced an increase in funding for many state programs including education, economic development, salmon restoration and state parks.

The end of the fiscal year 2004 left the Oregon Lottery with record overall sales for the second consecutive year. Total sales for the past year added up to $895.1 million, which surpassed the record sales figure of $855.8 million for the previous year.

Of the 2004 total, Video Lottery accounted for a record $530.9 million, and experts agree that including slot machine-type games will increase the revenue generated by such games.

According to employees of Department of Health and Human Services, an increase in availability and accessibility generates an increase not only in revenue and number of gamblers, but also in the number of problem or pathological gamblers. Julie Hynes is the problem gambling prevention coordinator for Lane County DHHS, and Andy Cartmill is the senior program educator for addictions in Washington County DHHS.

They explain why addictions and revenue could increase with the addition of slot machine type games to video terminals. As Cartmill noted, slot type games have greater appeal since they require less skill than video poker and have the benefit of “instant gratification.”

This trend points to a problem that has been on the rise in Oregon since the onset of legal gambling: the hidden social and economic costs of pathological gambling.

Hynes noted, “We’re all paying the social costs of problem gambling.”

Cartmill estimates an additional six to 12 people are directly affected by each person’s problem, and those numbers add up quickly.

Spouses, children, co-workers and friends all must experience this trauma, which is much like other forms of addiction, and the drain is not only emotional. Problem gamblers can experience bankruptcy, job loss, criminal activity to support the habit and even higher divorce rates.

For gambling, like other addictions, the earlier one starts, the more likely one is to develop a problem.

There’s no shortage of irony that some of the lottery money is earmarked for education, because Cartmill cited the problem gambling rate for people 10-17 years of age at 4.1 percent in Oregon.

This is compared to the rate for adults, which Cartmill estamated at around 2.3 percent.

College students appear to be the most vulnerable, with a rate of 5.6 percent. Other populations at risk may be minorities and the elderly, but Hynes said that while “more women are seeking treatment,” the people affected with this addiction “come from all walks of life, every education level and economic background.”

More in-depth studies have not been done due to lack of funding.

“Oregon is one of the nation’s leaders in pathological gambling prevention in treatment,” Cartmill said. Though free help is available to the problem gambler and her or his family, money from the 1 percent of net revenue from the lottery earmarked for these programs has slowly been siphoned off because of budget shortfalls.

Still, both Hynes and Cartmill are adamant about the importance of treatment in these cases.

“If someone thinks they may have a problem or know someone who does, it’s important to know help is available in Oregon. They can call the hotline, 1-877-2STOPNOW,” Hynes said.