- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Two years ago in New Jersey, 200,000 teen-agers were caught in casinos or trying to get in, prompting Edward Looney, executive director of the nonprofit Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, to call gambling the "teen-age addiction of the '90s."
The Harvard School of Medicine estimates that nearly 6 percent of teen-agers under age 18 have a serious gambling problem, compared to 1 percent of the adult population. Its report, which was published in the September 1999 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, was based on an analysis of more than 100 other studies of adults, children and gambling in the United States and Canada.
Mike Gimbel, a counselor with the Substance Abuse Office in Baltimore County, ascribes this phenomenon to the baby boomers' "fast-food society," where children learn from their parents that acquiring massive wealth quickly and painlessly is life's ultimate goal.
"That's why kids won't work at McDonald's anymore," he says. "It's not enough money. Kids are brought up with the value system that money is the most important thing, and they want it real fast. So the obvious seduction of gambling is it fits a need get rich quick."
Somehow the facts and philosophies behind gambling and young people are lost on many teen-agers in this area. Listen to Brooke Delane, Danny Schaeffer and Jennifer Schmitt, all juniors at Atholton High in Columbia, Md., discuss the issue of teen-age gambling.
Do they know a friend who gambles heavily? They all nod their heads.
Do they consider gambling as addictive and problematic as other teen vices, such as drugs or alcohol? They look at each other for a moment, then shake their heads.
"I don't think it's that big a deal," Brooke says.
"We know a lot more kids involved with drugs or alcohol than gambling," Jennifer adds.

'An emphasis on money'

While many studies have shown that lotteries prey primarily on the lower socioeconomic layers of society, recent studies on children and gambling show that young people across all social and economic levels engage in gambling.
"In every compulsive-gambler family or family of origin, there is an emphasis on money," says Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore. "[Perhaps] Dad works two jobs to support the family and the young child realizes that if we had more money, Dad could be home. And that connection with money is what starts the gambling."
Durand Jacobs, a clinical professor at the Loma Linda School of Medicine in Riverside, Calif., who has studied teen gambling for years, says the problem will mushroom because gambling is legitimized and more pervasive than it has ever been in this country.
Among the statistics he and other experts on underage gambling cite is the fact that 38 states, including Maryland and Virginia, have lotteries (as does the District of Columbia). All of them have started in the past 36 years, since New Hampshire led the way in 1963.
"The kids in this generation are the first generation of juveniles who have grown up in a society where gambling is legalized and socially accepted and condoned, and the government has promoted gambling all around them," Mr. Jacobs says. "That's never happened before.
"Why are we surprised?" he asks rhetorically, when children develop gambling problems.
He predicts that more adults in the United States will gamble, more children will follow, and the average age when children become familiar with gambling will drop below 12. Right now, he says based on his studies, the "age of familiarity" with gambling is almost 14.
"In Australia, the per capita expenditure on gambling is $600 [per year]," Mr. Jacobs says. "In the U.S., it's $200. We haven't even come close to our saturation point yet."

Support pillars aren't there

Parents aren't the only societal pillars who have failed to take the lead against underage gambling. Governments and churches are failing, too, experts say.
For instance, governments at the national and local levels typically are on the front lines against teen drinking, smoking and drug use, and the federal government spent $175 million in 1998 alone developing anti-drug advertisements for radio and television. On the issue of gambling, particularly by young people, however, the government is comparatively quiet.
That, experts say, is because state governments rake in too much money from lotteries to speak out on the issue. State lotteries returned $34 billion in revenue in 1997, and in 1998 the lotteries in Virginia and Maryland brought in almost $2 billion, according to figures from the state treasuries.
"There are a lot of states becoming dependent on lotteries to pay for school systems," Mr. Gimbel says. "What kind of message does that send?"
Not only that, but some governments go one step further and actively use children in promoting lotteries. Ron Reno, a policy analyst for Focus on the Family who studies gambling, says Alabama Gov. Donald Siegelman tried to use children as "front-line soldiers" in his efforts to get a state lottery, which was one of his campaign themes in his successful bid to oust former Gov. Fob James in 1998.
"The governor positioned first-graders for a pro-lottery ad, and when the camera was ready to shoot, he told them to say 'lottery' instead of 'cheese,' " Mr. Reno says. "He was recruiting college kids to use as soldiers in the battle. He told them specifically to take the message to their homes and churches. He was recruiting kids to do his dirty work."
Gov. Siegelman's press secretary, Carrie Kurlander, said she wasn't aware of any lottery ads using first-graders and added that Gov. Siegelman had planned to use lottery revenue strictly for public education purposes: pre-kindergarten programs, technology in the classrooms and college scholarships for high school graduates. Alabama voters rejected the lottery in a referendum last October.
Mr. Reno says churches and schools are apathetic at best or even complicit in promoting gambling with their "casino nights" and bingo games.
"The structural powers in our society are favoring or endorsing it," he says. "Education is so dependent on gambling in many places. Politicians have their hands in the gambling till. The media is always doing stories on million-dollar lottery winners but neglecting the tens of thousands of people bankrupted or ruined by lottery dreams.
"Churches are largely apathetic, so their moral authority is being undercut a lot of times."

'Casino night' controversy

"It's people who love kids the most the parents and educators" who send children conflicting messages on gambling with school-sponsored casino nights, says Elizabeth George, executive director of the North American Training Institute, a division of the nonprofit Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling.
"Some schools are bringing in parents dressing up as Las Vegas dealers and using Monopoly money to give kids as tokens toward prizes," Mrs. George says. "The reality is that these same parents and teachers would never think of a 'kiddie cocktail night' to teach kids how to make martinis."
Ironically, Mr. Gimbel's own office has played a role in organizing casino nights in Baltimore County as part of an experiment in offering alcohol- and drug-free post-prom parties. Casino nights with non-monetary prizes are among the activities the Substance Abuse Office has helped organize with the help of school parents, as well as bowling parties and swim parties at health clubs.
Mr. Gimbel says that though his office has organized casino nights for eight or nine years as part of a countywide post-prom-party initiative, the issue of real gambling has never come up.
"These parties are hosted and sponsored by the parents of the school," he says. "But no money changes hands; everything is played for prizes. We've passed all this through the police departments and the state's attorney office to make sure we're not giving kids a mixed message about gambling. We've never had any concerns from parents or schools."
The Virginia Department of Education also distributes a brochure for post-prom and graduation parties called "Celebrate Life," in which casino nights are suggested along with "South of the Border" nights, Mardi Gras parties and other ideas. Kevin Bell, a spokesman for the department, says the casino nights are similar to the ones in Baltimore County and local jurisdictions decide what activities to hold. He says Stafford County recently held a casino night, but other than that, he didn't know of any Virginia school districts that have done so.
Other institutions that traditionally have been connected with running casino nights as fund-raisers, such as fire departments and veterans organizations, have dropped them in this area. The Maryland General Assembly effectively outlawed fire-department casino nights in 1997, and an attempt to bring them back to Prince George's County failed last year.

Fighting back

Parents need to have a better of understanding of the dangers of gambling, experts say, because studies show that children who grow up in a gambling environment are much more likely than others to gamble themselves.
That might not be easy, particularly at this time of year, when just about every office in the country has some sort of pool for the NCAA basketball tournament and many have pro-football pools in the fall.
"When Junior comes home with a football pool and says he's got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is his father going to say, 'You're involved in a football pool? Shame on you. That's bad.'? Or is he going to say, 'You got that team? That's too bad,' " Mr. Gimbel says.
Many parents don't seem to understand how insidious gambling is. Mrs. George says her organization conducted a survey four years ago that asked parents how concerned they would be if they learned a child was gambling. Only 9 percent of parents said they would be "very concerned."
As a result, she says, the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling began targeting its prevention education toward parents as well as children.
While most teens are aware of the dangers of drugs and alcohol, most, like the three Atholton students, don't take gambling seriously.
Says one student at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville who makes occasional small bets with his friends on his two favorite pro basketball teams, the Lakers and the Kings, "Gambling's no problem or anything. A lot of my friends do it like I do. It's fun."

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