WASHINGTON – Mike Ryan lost his job,his savings and very nearly his family before he realized he had a problem.
The Northern Virginia resident bet on sports every day in 2007 through an online gambling site. It wasn't until he was fired for using his company credit card to cover his gambling debts that he began treatment for his addiction.
“Everything was going right in my life – I was making money and had a nice house,” Ryan said. “But then I started gambling on this specific Web site. … I would wire $900 into the account every day.”
Ryan,42,has since found a new job as a general manager of a recreation center in Maryland and volunteers to bring awareness to gambling addiction.
He shared his story in Washington on Wednesday to advocate for House Resolution 2906,the Comprehensive Problem Gambling Act of 2009. It would allocate one quarter of 1 percent of the federal tax revenue from gambling winnings to gambling addiction awareness programs,research and treatment. The bill has been referred to committee.
“This problem is really a growing problem that I'm afraid is going to get much,much worse if this doesn't get passed,” said Rep. Frank Wolf,R.-Va.,one of the bill's sponsors.
Rep. Jim Moran,D-Va.,another sponsor,said gambling addictions should be treated with just as much gravity as alcoholism and other addictions.
“I was a stock broker and got involved in options,so I have to stay away like others have to stay away from the liquor cabinet,” he said.
Out of the millions of dollars states reap from gambling winnings – including from lotteries,bingo,casinos and horse racing – little is put toward gambling addiction programs.
Moran said Virginia took in $750 million in gambling revenue in 2006,but spent just $50,000 on public service announcements about addition in 2008.
“That's not even a serious effort,and I think the reason is economics,” he said. “They are making money off the lottery.”
Only Utah and Hawaii neither sponsor nor permit any form of gambling. Of the 48 other states,34 fund problem gambling awareness services in amounts ranging from less than a penny to $1.65 per capita. According to the Association of Problem Gambling Administrators,states spend much more on other health issues.
California,for example,spends $20 per capita on substance abuse programs,$148 on mental health and 8 cents on problem gambling. The state makes $228 per capita in gambling revenues.
Rachel Volberg,a researcher who has studied gambling addiction for 25 years,said the small amount of research on gambling addiction makes it hard to estimate the number of problem gamblers in the U.S.
“It's not an area that the federal government is paying any attention to,and that's part of the reason for the National Council on Problem Gambling seeking the resolution that's been introduced,” she said.
According to the American Gaming Association,which represents the gambling industry,the number of problem and pathological gamblers has remained steady despite a rapid increase in the number of casinos in the last 30 years.
Volberg's research has shown a larger number of gambling addicts in areas with more opportunities to bet,such as Las Vegas,but she said the numerous factors related to the addiction fail to show a direct link between locations and addicts.
The proposed legislation would not have any impact on gambling establishments. However,the increase in betting opportunities should also mean an increase in the awareness of gambling addictions,the bill's sponsors argue.
“Back in 1973,there were only seven states that operated state lotteries,” Moran said. “Today there are only eight states that don't.”
The bill would funnel more than $14 million into treatment,research and public awareness.
Treatment for problem gamblers usually includes cognitive behavioral therapy. Left untreated,pathological gambling can lead to suicide.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy,D-R.I.,an advocate for mental health research,said gambling addictions are widespread among veterans who seek the thrill of high-risk betting.
“The constant over-activation of these soldiers – they live in constant threat,” he said. “Their cortisol levels are constantly high,and how do they deal with all those feelings of arousal when they come back? The abnormal becomes the normal.”
Keith Whyte,the National Council on Problem Gambling's executive director,said 85 percent of adults have gambled at least once,and 15 percent gamble at least once a week.
“The numbers are striking,” he said. “Gambling is now normative in our culture. It's now abnormal if you don't gamble.”
Although Ryan is in recovery,he still has mountains of debt. He is sure there are millions more people in the same situation. He got a help,but others might not.
“With the proliferation of gambling in our country,this problem will only get worse,” he said. “We,as a nation,have a responsibility to treat these people.”
Gambling by the numbers
Number of casinos:
1998 – 450 commercial casinos,160 American Indian casinos
2008 – 445 commercial casinos,423 American Indian casinos
Legal gambling revenue:
1998 – $27 billion
2008 – $95 billion
Revenue from illegal gambling is estimated to be higher.
Estimated social cost of gambling (thefts,job loss,bankruptcy,court costs) in
2008 – $6.7 billion
Of adults who gamble:
2-3 percent are problem or pathological gamblers
15 percent gamble at least once a week
30 percent have gambled at least once in the past month
65 percent have gambled at least once in the past year
85 percent have gambled at least once in their lives
States with a problem-gambling funds:
2001 – 13
2008 – 34
Amount of money per capita set aside for problem gambling funds:
From less than 1 cent to $1.65
Sources: American Gaming Association,National Council on Problem Gambling