A billboard posted in Albany by the New York Council...

A billboard posted in Albany by the New York Council on Problem Gambling in 2010. Credit: New York Council on Problem Gambling

If New York is to make casino gambling legal beyond Indian-run operations, we ought to do so with our eyes wide open. Casinos are fun for many people, and generate badly needed tax revenue. But they also wreck lives.

Roughly three in 100 adult Americans has a gambling problem at some point; somewhat less than half of this group can be classified as truly "pathological" gamblers. These are the people who can't stop, who sometimes sacrifice family, friendships and career, and even commit crimes to support their habit.

Excessive gamblers in general are disproportionately male, minority and low-income, which is one reason critics see gambling revenue as a regressive tax, or one falling on those least able to bear it. Problem gambling is also associated with increased bankruptcy and suicide.

Opening new territory to casinos generates more problem gambling. Some research indicates the closer you live to a casino, the greater your chance of having a problem.

Yet ultimately these aren't sufficient arguments against casinos. Many legal activities, including eating and alcohol consumption, are subject to overuse. Besides, there is already gambling here. The racinos at Aqueduct and Yonkers are casinos behind a technological fig leaf. Let's drop the pretense, and let grown-up New Yorkers bet their own money if they want to.

The challenge will be coping with those who get carried away. All substances are poisons; what really matters is the dose -- and inevitably, some players will overdose. Whatever the benefits of gambling, experience elsewhere shows that the heaviest costs fall on a relatively small group of abusers and their families.That's why it's important to plan for the problems right along with casinos. It's vital that some of the gambling revenue be used to help those who can't help themselves. One study of four western states that introduced casinos found that gambling problems increased in Montana and North Dakota, the two states with no funding for treatment services -- but actually fell in Oregon and Washington, which funded assistance.

Public awareness campaigns can help too, but it's important to give people the tools to stay out of trouble. Many places use "precommitment" techniques, such as self-exclusion registries that let gamblers bar themselves from casinos for a set period. Gambling parlors in Norway, Nova Scotia and Singapore allow gamblers to set limits in advance on plastic smart cards that must be inserted into machines before playing. Australia is moving toward a precommitment system too; one firm there has developed flash drives that rely on fingerprints and can work anywhere, including Internet casinos, to make self-imposed betting limits tough to circumvent. Problem gambling can be contained -- and to some extent, declines on its own after the novelty wears off and opportunistic abusers are tapped out. But to those who can't rein in their betting impulses, as well as their families and employers, the harm is already done.

The best bet is helping them stay out of trouble in the first place, and then doing everything possible to rescue those who fall into it.


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