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Experts warn of dangers in youth gambling

By Daniel Michaels, May 20th 2005
Twelve-year-old Matthew Cole and his stepfather, Roger Feltner, watched the closed-circuit television monitor intently as the horses turned for home at Churchill Downs.

Though he didn't win this time, Matthew was in the midst of a good day at the track, having hit the board on three of five races.

"He picks his own," Feltner said proudly of his stepson, moments after the seventh race had ended.

Indeed, on this recent day at the Downs there were hundreds of families gambling together kids studying the racing program and sending their bets to the windows with their parents.

Feltner, who is from Scott County, Ind., said he sees no harm.

"Will this become a habit?" he asked, referring to Matthew. "I doubt it. He's smarter than that."

While a day at the track is widely viewed as innocuous family entertainment, authorities on problem gambling have begun to urge parents and educators to rethink those attitudes.

At the 17th National Conference on Problem Gambling, which opened yesterday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Louisville, youth gambling is the focus of an unprecedented nine sessions led by re searchers and prevention experts. That reflects increased concern over what many view as a growing problem.

Researchers are finding children betting in ever-increasing numbers with 80 percent of adolescents telling one recent survey that they had gambled in the past year.

And nearly two dozen U.S. and Canadian studies over the past 20 years have found that children who gamble are far more likely than those who pick up the habit as adults to develop severe problems associated with what, at first, may appear to be nothing more than a harmless diversion.

"Gambling can be as addictive as alcohol, drugs or tobacco. We've got to get that message through," said Durand Jacobs, a professor at Loma Linda University Medical School in Riverside, Calif., and a longtime youth-gambling researcher. "Children are involved. That's the open secret."

JACOBS AND his colleagues blame the proliferation of gambling both legal and illegal for the overexposure that many youngsters now face. The current generation is growing up in an age when gambling on the lottery, horse racing, casinos, bingo and over the Internet is ubiquitous and far less stigmatized than it once was.

And getting in on the action is powerfully cool to kids, Jacobs said.

Roughly 80 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 have gambled in the past 12 months, according to a 2000 study by the International Center for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behavior Education at McGill University in Montreal.

Another 2000 study, conducted by Jacobs, found that adolescents often get involved in gambling before they begin smoking, drinking alcohol and using marijuana.

In attempting to imitate adults, the studies found, youths bet on sports, play cards and compete at video games for money. They buy lottery scratch-off tickets and can easily reach illegal Internet gambling sites a phenomenon that prompted the Federal Trade Commission last year to issue an alert warning parents of the easy access.

In Kentucky and Indiana, customers must be 18 to buy lottery tickets and bet on horse racing, and 21 to board one of Indiana's 10 riverboats.

But even with diligent oversight, those age limits are sometimes difficult to enforce. And authorities in the region are now trying to heighten awareness of the growing interest in gambling among young people.

The nonprofit Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling, for instance, will focus on youth gambling for the first time during its weeklong Problem Gambling Awareness blitz in August. The Frankfort-based advocacy organization also is pushing the Kentucky General Assembly to fund the state's first gambling-prevalence study.

With better information about the incidence of problem gambling among adults and youth, the council and other groups can do a better job targeting treatment and prevention campaigns, executive director Mike Stone said.

CHURCHILL DOWNS doesn't address children's involvement in betting because it's not something track officials have considered to be "a great problem," said John Asher, the track's vice president for racing.

However, he said the Downs would discourage any parent from placing bets for children under age 18.

Many people visit to enjoy horses and to learn about jockeys and racing, he said, "and they never place a bet. It's part of Kentucky history and culture."

He acknowledged, however, that the track "could work harder to stress that responsible gaming message."

For its part, the Kentucky Lottery intends to launch a pilot project at eight public and private schools in the Louisville area. The school-assembly presentation on risky behaviors including smoking, drinking and gambling is modeled on a Missouri Lottery campaign that reached about 200,000 sixth- through ninth-graders this spring.

Nichelle Anthony, the Kentucky Lottery's coordinator of special programs, said officials hope to expand the program in the next two to three years.

Last year the lottery also rolled out a multipronged media campaign spun around the slogan "Not 18? No way. No play."

In Indiana, virtually no one doubts the need for more aggressive awareness and prevention efforts after a 1999 state gambling-impact study returned some startling findings: Roughly 83 percent of Hoosiers ages 15 to 20 reported that they had participated in some form of gambling, with nearly 40 percent reporting buying lottery tickets.

The findings prompted the Hoosier Lottery to start "Three Strikes and You're Out," in which its 4,000 retailers risk license revocation if they're caught selling lottery products on three occasions to minors.

Five licensees have received written warnings after a first offense during the past three years, Indiana lottery spokesman Andrew Reed said. None has received second warnings.

Moreover, the Hoosier Lottery requires signs to warn that minors will be carded. Retailers also have strict rules to follow in tracking pull-tab and scratch-off vending machines in their stores, Reed said.

"We think (the efforts) really help stop the problem," he said.

The state's 10 casinos, meanwhile, also are trying to stop underage gamblers from entering. Reports from the boats to the Indiana Gaming Commission show that an average of several hundred each week attempt to slip past security crews.

For example, in only three years between 1999 and the end of 2001 Harrah's casino in Lake County stopped 4,522 patrons under age 21 from trying to enter.

EARLY LAST year at the Caesars casino in Harrison County, a 17-year-old was found plugging tokens into a slot machine on the riverboat's second floor. When security crews asked him for identification, the youth said he didn't have any.

That prompted the Indiana Gaming Commission to fine Caesars $3,000 for allowing a minor access to the casino.

To sharpen the focus on Hoosier youngsters and their gambling habits, the Indiana Division of Mental Health recently contracted with a consultant to fashion gambling questions as part of an annual student "attitudes and behaviors" survey conducted by Indiana University.

The hope is that the information will allow officials to tailor messages for awareness campaigns that the state conducted during the past two years through TV spots and visits to college campuses before the NCAA basketball tournament, said Tom Rich, the division's problem-gambling point man.

The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute also launched gambling-awareness workshops this spring at the state meeting of student leaders for SADD Students Against Destructive Decisions. "We want to put gambling on their radar screen," said Susan Hyatt, the institute's problem-gambling prevention coordinator.

But experts insist they're fighting an uphill battle if they can't convince parents to wise up. The diligence by lotteries means little if parents buy scratch-off tickets and give them to children a common practice, said Shelly Perez, the Missouri Lottery's Responsible Gaming Program coordinator.

"Gambling too long has been looked on as family entertainment," Perez said. "That's why we're trying to tell parents not to buy a child lottery scratch tickets. They would not walk out (of a store) and hand their child a beer. They shouldn't do it with lottery tickets. They just can't do it anymore."

Stephen Alexander, a Benton, Ky., problem-gambling counselor, said he has begun to see evidence of gambling disorders among young people in recent years. And despite the best intentions of lotteries, young clients tell him that their gambling often involves scratch-offs, he said.

"If the kid gets 10 tickets for their birthday (and there's no winner) it's not a problem. However, when they have 10 tickets and they (win) $40, that's the worst thing that can happen," Alexander said.

MANY ADULT problem gamblers report that their wagering started when they were teenagers or younger, Alexander said.

"I think it's important not to give kids a mixed message," said Tangerine-Ann Holt, a professor at the University of Louisville's Kent School of Social Work and a gambling researcher. "We need more education as a means of prevention."

Jacobs, the California researcher, insists parents shouldn't take children to the racetrack "as you people have done for years in Kentucky," nor should they buy children scratch-off tickets or let them play cards for money with friends.

"Right now, the parents are the pushers. They've got to say: `I disapprove of this. I'll punish you. You can't do it,' " he said. "Unfortunately, the public attitude is that they don't worry about gambling the way they worry about drugs and alcohol. That's got to change."


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