In Our View: Study the Danger

New research is needed in Washingtonabout the problems of gambling addiction

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With Washington state projected to rake in $2.5 million in 2011 tax revenue from gambling, why would state officials want to research the dangers of gambling addiction? That’s the cynical view. The humanitarian and sociological view is that our state should and must take a full interest in the public health aspects of revenue sources.

For that reason, the state properly saw fit to conduct a problem-gambling study in 1999. Among the findings: 2 to 4 percent of adults were “problem gamblers,” according to Maureen Greeley, executive director of the Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling, which works with the state to provide services for addicts.

That, however, was the last time the state conducted such a study. And as Ray Legendre reported in Friday’s print edition of The Columbian, state revenues from gambling have more than tripled from the $698.8 million received in 1999. What has happened during these 12 years? Is gambling addiction a bigger problem? Washingtonians deserve to know.

In our continuing opposition to the growth of gambling, The Columbian has acknowledged the futility of hoping gambling will go away. It’s been around as long as humans could count. But if the state is going to increase its revenue from gambling, it ought to increase its interest in the hazards of the activity.

The local impact of this issue is clear. Four cardrooms have operated for years in La Center. The Cowlitz Tribe wants to open a megacasino on Interstate 5 near La Center. And the Oak Tree Casino opened recently as a cardroom in Woodland. At the state level, the growth of gambling has been significant; it’s now a $2.5 billion industry. Washington state has 28 tribal casinos. The number of cardrooms has climbed to 61. Also, there are 1,043 commercial pull tab operations and 234 bingo halls. In the Columbian story, Greeley was quoted: “If you are seeking an avenue to gamble, it’s there for you at a very close proximity. There’s no lack of opportunity to gamble.”

The Washington Department of Behavioral Health and Recovery oversees treatment for gambling addicts and their families, training for treatment providers, and outreach and awareness programs. Six years ago, the state began a 0.13 percent business and occupation tax on cardrooms, commercial pull tab operations and bingo halls, and the tax yielded more than $400,000 for problem-gambling programs in 2011. Tribal casinos, not included in the tax, contributed about $1.6 million toward treatment programs in 2010. So it’s not as if no attention is being paid to the problem.

But is the commitment enough?

And there is more than just this ongoing financial commitment to treatment programs. To their credit, workers at many gambling establishments are on the lookout for problem gamblers, but the signs are difficult to detect. Chuck McCormick, the general manager at the Oak Tree Casino, who has worked 38 years in the business, describes the dreaded call. It wasn’t received in the first two weeks the Oak Tree has been open, but McCormick knows how relatives of gambling addicts alert employees of gambling establishments about the problem. And McCormick said he is quick to bar such players from his establishment.

But at the state level, more research is needed. If officials at casinos and cardrooms suspect the problem is no worse than it was in 1999, they should welcome a study that proves the point. At any rate, it’s time to find out.