March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month [poster}
What are our public health officials and other local political and community leaders doing to combat problem gambling?
We believe that only 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. With Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor now scheduled to open in a year, such programs are needed ASAP and must especially target vulnerable groups, such as aging adults, low-income residents, and youth.
So far, our City and County governments have refused to admit there is a problem, much less that it will be significant. Rush Street Gaming declared in its Application to the NYS Racing Commission for a Schenectady casino license that funding for treatment programs, and the prior existence of slots in Saratoga and casinos in Atlantic City and Connecticut, meant that “the existence of gaming at Rivers Casino is not expected to lead to an increase in prevalence rates in the local area.” With that assertion, Rush Street denied that increased proximity and access to casino-style gambling will increase the prevalence of problem gambling in our community. The report Why Casinos Matter, by the Council on Casinos of the Institute for American Values, states to the contrary (at 18-19):
“Numerous studies show that living close to a casino is a key factor in more frequent gambling. More frequent gambling increases the risk of serious problem gambling. A large-scale study in 2004 found that people who live within 10 miles of a casino have twice the rate of pathological and problem gambling as those who do not.”
Similarly, after doing an extensive review of the available research, the Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) group No Downtown Casino strongly and successfully opposed building a casino in downtown Hamilton, stressing that:
“Studies show that proximity to a casino doubles the levels of problem gambling, which in turn results in increased spousal abuse, depression, child developmental issues, personal debt, addiction and cross-dependency, personal bankruptcies, attempted suicides, suicides, social service costs. We know that problem gambling has a profound impact on a gambler’s friends and families, which substantially increases the number of people affected by problem gambling.”
Therefore, we congratulate the Schenectady Gazette editorial staff for raising the issue of problem gambling in today’s newspaper, in an editorial promoting the State’s proposals to improve the gambler self-exclusion program (“Help Problem Gamblers Help Themselves“, March 2, 2016). Nevertheless, we hope the Gazette will call for far more comprehensive programs locally and statewide against problem gambling. We believe that self-exclusion from casinos by individuals who recognize they have a gambling problem and want to do something about it is, at best, a very limited approach to the plague of Problem Gambling. In a way, it is a mere fig-leaf covering a multitude of ways that casinos encourage irresponsible gambling. The 2,800 people who are currently on New York’s self-exclusion list are, for example, a tiny portion of the 15 to 20 percent of those who frequently gamble at casinos and are believed to be problem gamblers.
In addition, of course, Self-Exclusion programs are far from infallible. Thus, the article “Policing gamblers who can’t police themselves isn’t easy” (Philadelphia Inquirer, by Jennifer Lin, September 9, 2013) states:
“It is somewhere between infrequent and unlikely that you will be detected,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Casinos “rely on security guards at the entrance with an antique face book – a binder with photos” of customers on self-exclusion lists.
Mohawk Harbor’s Rush Street Gaming has demonstrated the enforcement difficulty rather frequently in its Philadelphia casino, SugarHouse. For example, see “Sugar House fined for advancing cash to problem gamblers” (Philadelphia Inquirer, September 6, 2015), which reported that “The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board fined SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia $50,000 for giving cash advances to 11 individuals who asked to be banned from casinos in Pennsylvania.” Similarly, note the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board press release of May 23, 2012, announcing that SugarHouse was fined $70,000 “for seven instances where underage individuals [ranging in age from 17 to 20] engaged in gaming,” and an additional $10,000 “for two separate incidents in November 2010 and March 2011 in which two individuals who had placed themselves on the PGCB’s Self-Exclusion List engaged in gambling.”
A more amazing incident is described in “Casino developer allowed man to gamble 70-plus straight hours in Philly” (Telegraph & Gazette, Worcester, Mass, August 20, 2013), which quoted the following statement by Pennsylvania Gaming Board Commissioner Gregory C. Fajt to SugarHouse officials:
“It boggles my mind that somebody can be in your facility for three days in one instance, four days in another, a known compulsive gambler on the list and not be recognized.”
Rush Street’s Rosemarie Cook replied: “I assure you it was not a case of being asleep at the wheel. . . . He was just average, and he looked average,” The Inquirer article cited above also discussed that incident, stating: “At their July meeting, Pennsylvania’s gaming commissioners excoriated SugarHouse representatives for not catching [frequent violator Kylee] Bryant.”
Despite the above record at SugarHouse (which I uncovered with just a few minutes of Googling), Rush Street recently issued this statement to the press (“New York to step up effort to battle problem gambling“, by Haley Viccaro, Schenectady Gazette, March 2, 2016):
“We have a strong history when it comes to responsible gaming at our other properties, including operating under statewide self-exclusion policies, and we look forward to continuing that same record of excellence in Schenectady.”
At a symposium on problem gambling held at Schenectady County Community College last year, the Rush Street representative was excited about their efforts to promote responsible gambling, but their efforts apparently revolve around helping the staff identify underage persons, problem gamblers and drinkers, and policing the state’s mandated self-exclusion program. Perhaps, we simply cannot expect more of a casino, when, as stated in Why Casinos Matter:
Casinos depend on problem gamblers for their revenue base.
Problem gamblers account for 40 to 60 percent of slot machine revenues, according to studies conducted over the past decade or so. This evidence contradicts claims by gambling lobbyists that their industry wants to attract only those customers who play casually “for fun.” Indeed, if casinos had to rely on such casual customers, they would not long survive. A Canadian study found that casual players comprised 75 percent of players but contributed only 4 percent of net gambling revenue. The casinos’ real money comes from problem gamblers.
For similar reasons, we perhaps cannot count on a City Hall and County Legislature banking on major tax relief that is based on the size of casino revenues to seriously recognize and combat the imminent growth of Schenectady’s problem gambling problem. One result of Mayor Gary McCarthy never demanding a host community or mitigation agreement with Rush Street Gaming is that the Mayor and his Administration, like Metroplex and County Government, never did or commissioned any independent research or investigation that could be used to rebut the glib claims of Rush Street and Galesi Group that a casino would have no significant added costs or negative impact on the City, nearby neighborhoods or towns, or the County. (See our posting on The Mayor and HCAs.)
Things were different in the tiny town of Tyre and Seneca County to our west, when they confronted the potential coming of the Lago Casino to Tyre, NY. They sat down with applicant-developer Wilmot, commissioned studies, and accomplished a multi-faceted Host Community Agreement that squarely faced a multitude of issues, including the specter of problem gambling. To fulfill an agreement with Seneca County Mental Health Department that was incorporated into the Tyre Host Community Agreement [June 2014], Lago Casino will pay for hiring two additional problem gambling specialists (one for treatment and one for prevention). More important, Seneca County and casino developer Wilmot set out the structure for a Problem Gambling Prevention, Outreach and Education Program that will seriously address the issues relating to problem gambling.
Here are some of the provisions in the 3-page Seneca County Problem Gambling Protocol:
In partnership with Seneca County Mental Health, Wilmot Casino will fund materials to be used for prevention, outreach and education to vulnerable populations in the Seneca County area.
[SCMH] will begin their outreach and education efforts once Wilmot Casino is granted the casino license, prior to the opening of the casino.
Initiatives to address problem gambling will focus on impacts in the workplace, family, neighborhood, youth, older adults, public safety and crime prevention awareness.
Problem gambling public awareness efforts will target messaging at specifically vulnerable populations including youth, parents as influencers on youth, family member of problem gamblers, indviduals and families with substance abuse disorders, college students, low income residents and aging adults.
Age appropriate programming and education on problem gambling will target youth beginning no later than age 12.
Problem gambling education will be infused into all Seneca County Mental Health programs including but not limited to summer camps, Family Education Programs, Crime Victims Assistance Program, Domestic Violence Services and Domestic Abuse Awareness Classes.
Outreach and education specifically targeted at the Aging Adult population will take place at senior centers, retirement community events, etc.
Seneca County and Town of Tyre officials clearly understand that “partnering” with a casino developer means far more than helping it win its gaming license by avoiding all talk of negative impacts and added expenses; and the Wilmot Company expects to do much more than make demands and seek concessions in upholding its part of the partnership. It may be too late for Schenectady to use any leverage to achieve a impact mitigation agreement with Rush Street and Galesi, but it certainly is not too late for City and County leaders to establish and implement an outreach, education, prevention, and treatment program to combat problem gambling. Our not-for-profit sector (especially the Counseling and Helping Professions), faith communities, local media, academic leaders (at the collegiate level, and in our public, charter and parochial schools) need to speak out immediately, strongly and consistently to ensure that the County and City have necessary programs in place before Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor begins operations.
For more information and assistance, see:
follow-up (March 3, 2017): see our more optimistic coverage of 2017 Problem Gambling Awareness Month
Note: The editor of this website has started a modest Problem Gambling Postcard Project to help deal with related problems and educational needs. The postcards are available at The Open Door Book Store on Jay Street in downtown Schenectady. See the Postcards Page at “suns along the Mohawk” for a description of the project, which will donate all of the photographer’s proceeds with the intention of helping to deter and treat problem gambling.