do low gambling revenues mean fewer problem gamblers?

 Schenectady Gazette columnist Sara Foss has been the Capital Region journalist most consistently concerned about the potential for the Schenectady Casino creating more problem gamblers in our community. Her January 13 column continues that theme. See “Foss: More problem gamblers seeking treatment“; and her prior opinion piece, More resources needed for problem gambling” (Feb. 5, 2017).

For her recent column, Foss again spoke with Philip Rainer, the chief clinical officer at Capital Counseling, the non-profit agency that runs The Center for Problem Gambling in Albany. And, tells us:

 In the 11 months since Rivers Casino in Schenectady opened, Rainer has seen a steady uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for a gambling addiction from his organization.  . . .

When I caught up with Rainer last week, he spoke about the casino’s impact in the same matter-of-fact tone he did last year, only this time he was armed with hard numbers that suggest the new casinos have led to an increase in problem gambling.

In February 2017, there were 34 people enrolled in the Center’s gambling-treatment program. By December, that number had risen to 54 — a 60 percent increase.

Sara correctly notes that, although those numbers might not sound huge, “they represent a significant increase for a program that has been pretty stable, in terms of the number of individuals served, over the years.” But, apparently believing that lower GGR will mean fewer problem gamblers, Rainer told Foss that “the shortfall in gaming revenue and gamblers doesn’t trouble him one bit.” After noting that New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady has not yet seen an increase with its new gambling-only program, Sara concludes on a hopeful note:

I’m with Rainer: There is an upside to lower-than-projected gaming revenues, and it’s that there are likely to be fewer people battling gambling addictions.

Which is a good thing, even if it hurts the casinos’ bottom lines.

CasinoFeverLogo Sorry to say, I am not at all convinced that the experience at Capital Counseling gives us a complete picture of the extent of Casino-created problem gambling issues in our community. And, I cannot be as optimistic as Sara Foss that the significant shortfall in Gross Gambling Revenues generated by Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor is likely to mean fewer problem gamblers, or that the existence of trained counselors will be sufficient to solve the problem.  For one thing, gambling becomes a problem for gamblers and their families, friends, colleagues, and the community, long before it rises to the level of a gambling addiction and referral to or seeking counseling available from professionals like the Capital Counseling staff.

Problem gambling” means gambling behaviors that result in serious negative consequences to the gambler, and his or her family and friends, employer, or community. It can affect people in any age, racial, or economic group, but youth (kidsadolescents and college students) and senior citizens are thought to be particularly at-risk.

Thus, frequent visitors to Rivers Casino may be nurturing a problem gambling crisis long before they seek help, if they ever do. Moreover, eleven months is not a very long time for a person gambling at Rivers Casino, or thinking about it, to discover he or she might have a Problem Gambling or Gambling Addiction problem, and then make the commitment to seek out counseling (including, finding out whether it is covered by their health insurance).

  • Sufficient self-discovery or commitment is very often prompted by family or friends seeing a pattern that looks like a problem and gaining the courage to bring up the subject, or intervene, in an effective way.
  • It also can be prompted by a drastic financial crisis caused by gambling, but such money issues, especially for those with credit cards, often take quite awhile to become too great to ignore.

Indeed, how widespread can the Aha “I need gambling counseling” Moment be, when the media in general, and local government in particular, have not helped to educate the public about the dangers of problem gambling? And, have instead been working to make going to Rivers Casino seem glamorous or normal. [e.g., Mayor McCarthy in a Billy Fuccillo ad shot at the Casino; see image below] Surprisingly, private groups who we’d expect to promote Prevention Education — i.e., public interest and non-profits dealing with families and youth and the faith community — have not yet stepped up. In fact, even Schenectady County’s two largest health care institutions were caught up in Rivers Fever. See the sponsors in the Gazette ad to the right, explained in our Sept. 12, 2017 posting, “why are Ellis Medicine and MVP promoting Casino Gambling“.

My Comment at the Gazette webpage for Sara’ column, reproduced at the bottom of this posting, outlines my main reasons for being more worried than Sara is, despite GGR below projections. In particular, I fear:

  • It is almost certain that many Rivers Casino gamblers belong to demographic groups that are most unlikely to seek professional counseling for gambling issues, and do not show up in stats like those from Capital Counseling.
  •  Because 63.6% of total GGR in 2017 at Rivers Casino Schenectady was from slots and electronic table games, it seems very likely that a large proportion of the players at Rivers are older gamblers, susceptible to the Casino marketing, and  adverse to seeking mental health counseling. [See AARP Bulletin, Oct. 2016, “The Casino Trap: As the gambling industry booms, aggressive marketing targets older patrons”; and “Seniors and Problem Gambling“.
  • The low GGR numbers, and the almost certain low overall “visitation” numbers, mean that Rivers Casino is drawing almost all of its gamblers from a very small geographic area, and from repeat customers, many of whom are coming too often for the experience to merely be leisure entertainment.
    • While a manager at Rush Street Gaming’s Philadelphia casino, SugarHouse, the first general manager at Schenectady’s Rivers Casino, Mary Cheeks, explained to the Pennsylvania gaming commission that they often had customers who came three or four times a week to SugarHouse. Casinos hope for such local repeat gamblers. They are the bread and butter of a regional casino not attracting the caviar set.

It seems most unlikely that significant numbers of people with problem gambling tendencies are seeking counseling. We cannot make believe that gambling addiction counseling will solve the problem gambling problem in our Community. We need both, but to deter the problems effectively, Prevention Trumps Counseling. As I argued in a posting for the 2016 Problem Gambling Awareness Month:

[O]nly organized programs specifically focused on problem gambling prevention, education, and treatment, with ongoing outreach activities, can hope to address the effects that a casino in Schenectady is likely to have on our community.

Comment of David Giacalone at the Gazette:

Thank you for this piece, Sara. I hope you are right that the increase in people seeking counseling corresponds with the actual increase in problem gamblers. A lot depends on the demographics of who is doing the gambling. Attitudes toward seeking counseling vary greatly among those most likely to be frequent casino visitors.
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Also, the relative lack of revenue and of success drawing people from a wide area, not to mention high rollers, means that the “victims” are coming from a small, very local geographic area. Rivers has not shared with us how many visitors it has attracted, after predicting an unreasonable 2.8 million visitors a year. The smaller the number of visitations, the more likely locals are heading to the Casino more than tourists (and, incidentally, the smaller the impact of the boasted “ripple effect” on local businesses).
 .
 My calculations show that total Slot & ETG Gross Gambling Revenue for 2017 at Rivers, $82.3 million, comprised 63.6% of total GGR. That is a lot of slot playing, and since slots and electronic table games are available at Saratoga Casino, that is predominantly local dollars and players.
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Thanks, Gramps! Also, because Slot revenues are taxed at 45%, but table and poker revenues at 10%, slot players are transfering their money to the State, County and City to reduce our taxes. Indeed, about 89% of the gambling tax paid by Rivers Casino comes from slot dollars. If slots are mostly played by senior citizens, any local tax break is mainly being paid for by Grandma and Grandpa and Auntie Tillie.
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Prevention Education to help people avoid problem gambling may be far more effective than counseling of those who admit they have the problem and have the means and commitment to utilize counseling. Schenectady County and the City sponsor no programs on Prevention Education, but instead leave this important social tool to the private sector, while glamorizing and normalizing casino gambling. See http://tinyurl.com/ProbGambSchdy
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