Helping NJ’s Compulsive Gamblers Get the Treatment They Need

Colleen O'Dea | January 24, 2013 | Health Care, More Issues, Social
Gambling pumps billions into the state economy, almost none of it goes to help those struggling with their addiction

At age 47, after stealing some $80,000 from her employer to support a secret $100-a-day lottery habit, Elaine wound up on the street — her husband threw her out of the house — and eventually in jail for five months.

“I ended up in hell.”

It has been 18 years since Elaine placed a bet. Divorced, she found love with another recovering gambler, has the love and support of her children, and makes a monthly restitution payment to her former employer, which she calls “a small mortgage without the house.” She works at the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey and, among her duties, counsels those who call its 1-800-GAMBLER helpline seeking assistance with their own addiction.

Elaine, who asked that her last name not be used to spare her family any embarrassment, said she is not against gambling, but that the council “needs support so we can help people who need it get treatment.”

Her boss, Donald Weinbaum, said the state gambling council has been officially neutral on a flurry of recent initiatives to boost gambling opportunities, pushed by lawmakers or Gov. Chris Christie, as ways to pump more revenue into the state budget.

But he has been arguing for more funding for problem gambling services in a state that lags behind most others in its support for those who struggle with an addiction to one or more forms of betting, much of which is state-sponsored, particularly because he suspects that more lottery games, easier casino wagers, and sports betting will lead to more compulsive gamblers.

“There is a significant need in the state and we do not have a way to address it,” said Weinbaum, executive director of the compulsive gambling council. “What is really the sticking point is the level of funding available for problem gambling.”

In testifying twice before the Assembly Budget Committee on the Christie administration’s effort to partially privatize the New Jersey Lottery, Weinbaum has noted that virtually every other state uses more money from its lottery to fund programs to help problem gamblers than New Jersey does. The lottery gives $10,000 to the council – technically a membership fee — for its programs each year.

“We compare rather poorly” to other states, he said.

New Jersey’s overall commitment to those with a gambling addiction is not much better. New Jersey tied for 23rd out of 38 states for the amount spent per capita on services for problem gamblers, according to the 2010 National Survey of Publicly Funded Problem Gambling Services conducted for the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators. And 17 of the states gave more in total to compulsive gambling programs than New Jersey’s $860,000, including the $10,000 from the lottery. California spent the most — $8.7 million – but smaller states like Indiana provided $5.5 million and Delaware, whose population is one-tenth that of New Jersey, committed $1 million, according to the survey.

“New Jersey was kind of a pioneer in this effort,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “But other states have now gone far beyond that. New Jersey is no longer a leader.”

He said that in the 1970s, after New Jersey legalized gambling in Atlantic City, the state “really set the standard” for regulations preventing underage gambling and for providing services for problem gamblers, something Nevada did not do until decades later. But today other states invest more in trying to help those with a gambling addiction.

“I can’t remember the last time New Jersey funded a prevalence study,” White said.

Similarly, he continued, the state does not have a comprehensive, statewide gambling prevention curriculum in elementary or middle school, and while it does fund outpatient treatment services, there are not a lot of programs.

Major Gaps in Gambling Treatment

Weinbaum agreed, saying the council subsidizes nine centers across the state, leaving major gaps — large counties like Bergen, Essex and Hudson have no treatment center.

New Jersey’s contribution to the gambling council represents a small fraction of the total amount spent on gambling in the state – little more than one-ten-thousandth of the nearly $6 billion in gross revenues from the lottery and casinos alone in 2011. And it’s 0.07 percent of nearly $1.2 billion the state got from those two sources.

But Weinbaum points out that almost none of the money the council gets comes directly from the state’s portion of gambling proceeds: $600,000 comes from fines and penalties assessed against casinos, $50,000 from forfeited casino winnings, and $200,000 from assessments on off-track wagering licensees. The lottery’s annual $10,000 contribution is its payment of an organizational membership fee, and this fiscal year it also provided $5,000 to sponsor a luncheon at the council’s statewide conference.

“We need to add problem gambling into the state budget,” as Weinbaum said “virtually all other states” do.

And this is less money than the council got in the 2010 fiscal year, or 2006. After he took office, Christie cut the council’s budget by $120,000. The state was one of a dozen that has cut funding over the last five years, the national problem gambling survey found, while 21 other states increased the money they gave to treat betting addictions.

Weinbaum said the state lost some treatment providers as a result of the cut, and that only hurts the estimated 350,000 New Jerseyans believed to be compulsive gamblers. They include a Passaic County couple facing eviction after having gambled away most of their Social Security and pension benefits and are seeking financial help from their children, Weinbaum said in describing one call that came in to the state hotline. And a Sussex County couple spent virtually all of $1 million in savings on lottery scratch-offs, he said, in describing another call.

Many of the people who call the council’s 1-800-GAMBLER hot line share a number of characteristics. And the phone is where the council’s efforts begin. The hot line gives callers, be they gamblers or their loved ones, a chance to talk and get a referral to a self-help program like Gamblers Anonymous or GAMANON or to a state-subsidized treatment center. At the centers, a gambler can get a free evaluation, with counseling provided free or for a small fee.

The hotline fielded more than 17,000 calls in 2011, which is about 46 every day.

“Most of the people who reach out to us are desperate,” Weinbaum said. “They have lost everything, largely due to gambling. A lack of money can be a barrier to them getting services, which is why we do need state funding.”

Specifically, he said, the state needs more programs for school-age children and women, more early intervention services, greater efforts to stop underage gambling, and additional public service announcements.

Gambling Gets a Big Push

While the council’s budget has held steady since 2010, the state has been pushing to increase gambling opportunities and, thus, state revenues.

Last year, Christie signed a bill allowing sports betting in the state, despite a federal law that limits legal sports betting to four states – Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon. Estimates are the wagering would generate $1 billion in bets and $100 million in revenue to the state. Sports organizations have sued to stop the state from implementing the law and the U.S. Department of Justice this week filed papers seeking to join the suit, pending in U.S. District Court.

Last month, lawmakers passed a bill, A-2578 to allow New Jerseyans, and possibly others, to play games offered in Atlantic City over the Internet. The measure is currently on Christie’s desk.

Conversely, some legislators have balked at the proposition that people may be allowed to play NJ Lottery games over the Internet under the Christie administration’s effort to give a private vendor control over sales and marketing functions for the 43-year old lottery.

The state put privatization out to bid and got only one proposal, the details of which remain confidential while state procurement officials evaluate the package. New Jersey’s request requires a $120 million upfront payment from a contractor and seeks to grow lottery sales, particularly among younger people.

While the Legislature currently has no power to stop the awarding of a contract, should the administration decide to do so, Democrats on the Assembly Budget Committee have opposed the proposal at two hearings over the past two months.

Weinbaum said he is concerned that such expanded gambling — including Internet wagering and sports betting — will attract more gamblers, including younger people.

“Sports betting tends to be between 6 percent and 10 percent of our calls, even though this is not legal today,” he said, referring to those who contact the hotline. “It’s very common among young people …. The Internet is very attractive to young people.”

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And in the case of new lottery games and greater advertising to promote it, Weinbaum fears, “any increase in marketing new services would lead to more gamblers having problems.”

During the hearing last week, he asked the budget committee members to consider giving more money to the council, specifically asking that 2 percent of new lottery revenues be dedicated for compulsive gambling programs to help “bring New Jersey in line with the commitments of other states.”

Several of the Democrats seemed to lend a sympathetic ear.

“We have to do a better job of that,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), pledging to have a larger discussion of the issue during upcoming budget hearings. “We need to fund it better if we are lagging behind other states.”

“I think everyone pretty much understands we are not putting enough money into gambling addiction services,” agreed Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex).

But that could lead to a drop in state gambling revenues, said Assemblyman Gary Chiusano (R-Sussex).

“If we did something to make the lottery less attractive that would hurt revenues,” he said. “If we want to increase revenues, we have to advertise the lottery. Just like with Pepsi or a car commercial, you say, ‘You’re going to feel better if you buy this product or service.’ We have to do the same thing with the lottery.”

And that makes it even more important for state officials in New Jersey and other states that do not provide a full range of gambling addiction services, said Whyte.

“You would never see a state agency putting up a billboard saying, ‘Buy another carton of smokes, our schools need more computers,’” he said. “This is the only addictive behavior that the state profits so heavily from . . . It brings in far more revenue than alcohol or tobacco and most states are not growing the alcohol or tobacco, they are just regulating it.

“You have a greater obligation to protect your citizens from something you own, operate, and benefit from,” Whyte continued. “There is an ethical responsibility.”

The Payoff for Treatment

It also makes financial sense.

“Even if you think problem gamblers are bums, they are costing your state money,” Whyte continued, saying studies show that every $1 spent on addiction services saves as much as $6 in criminal justice and healthcare costs.”

The story of Elaine, who works for New Jersey’s compulsive gambling council and wound up in jail due to her wagering, is not unusual.

Elaine said she started playing the lottery about 25 years ago, spending about $10 a day on tickets, because she found it gave her a rush.

“It was the highest high,” said Elaine, who is also a recovering alcoholic. “I couldn’t see how I could be getting this high from something I was not putting in my body.”

She wound up buying so many tickets a day that she would drop her numbers off with the clerk at the deli across the street in the morning and then pick up her Pick-3 and Pick-4 tickets at the end of the day so as not to inconvenience others.

“A lot of times I won, and people would say, ‘You’re so lucky.’ But they didn’t know how much I spent. I may have won $26, but I paid $100 for the tickets,” she said.

When her addiction was at its worst, she had maxed out 20 credit cards, would get up early in the morning and sit in the bathroom and plan the day’s picks in consultations with notebooks she kept with the winning numbers, forbade her children from even crossing between her and the television during the nightly lottery drawings, and regularly lied to her husband about her compulsion.

“It was such a drain on my time and money,” she said. “At the end, it was pure hell.”

A bookkeeper who earned about $18,000 a year, Elaine then started stealing from her employer. When she was caught, she went to a hotel with the intention of committing suicide, but couldn’t go through with it.

Instead, her husband threw her out. She was arrested and eventually spent five months in jail. She started going to 12-step meetings. She had to move back in with her parents.

Today, she has not placed a bet in 18 years and has gotten her life back. She has been working for the council for the last eight years. She tries to help others who call into the helpline and who attend self-help meetings with her. She has learned so many others share her addiction, with many worse off. Like the man who was buying three rolls of scratch offs a day end ended up stealing $800,000 from a union fund to pay for his habit.

“I’m 65 now,” she said. “My life is really good. I have a couple of dollars in the bank. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing . . . I have this opportunity to help people.”