Alaska may be devoid of thoroughbred racetracks and Las Vegas-style casinos, but it isn't free from the devastating downside to gambling, say psychiatrists who study gambling behavior.
For compulsive betters seeking the thrill of chance, the games the state does permit in the name of fund-raising can be every bit as motivating. Though strictly regulated, the state allows municipalities and nonprofit organizations to run bingo parlors, sell pull-tabs, even hawk lottery tickets on such natural events as breakup on the Tanana River. Such activities may seem innocuous, but betting, periodically reinforced by winning, can grow to pathological addiction for some players.
Nationally, studies show about 1 percent, or as many as 3 million people, meet the criteria for pathological gambling. Another 2 percent are so-called problem gamblers who suffer symptoms less severe, but nevertheless significant in terms of the negative impact their habits have on their lives, psychiatrists say.
In Alaska, the rate of addiction to gambling may be higher than it is nationally, said Dr. Charles Burgess, medical director of the Homer Community Mental Health Center and former chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Providence Hospital.
"The percentage is higher in Alaska because of the wide availability of pull-tabs and no one is paying attention," he said. "It is culturally accepted, especially in the lower-income population, to go and spend money on pull-tabs. It has slid into the fabric of communities."
Burgess said he has treated pathological gamblers. The hallmark of their illness is that the behavior is out of control.
Unlike those with alcohol or drug addictions where friends and family members often detect problems early on because the symptoms are so obvious, a gambling addiction can be a silent predator, he said.
"I've had gambling patients for whom the stories are horrendous," he said. "These are people concealing the seriousness and severity of their problem until it devastates their families financially."
Perhaps Alaska's most ubiquitous form of gaming is the pull-tab. But the slot machine-like cards are not welcome everywhere.
Take the city of McGrath, where the attraction of pull-tabs got so bad they've been banned since the early 1990s. Prior to the ban, a public radio station there supported its operations with bingo and pull-tabs.
"In a town of about 500, we were netting about $100,000 a year from a one-night-a-week bingo game in the city hall," said former station manager Will Peterson, now of Anchorage. "We lost money on bingo, but the pull-tabs were sold all night."
Peterson said it became apparent that about 25 players were spending an average of $4,000 a year each on pull-tabs, something he said he found disturbing.
"It was definitely a social thing," he said, adding the players didn't consider themselves to be donating to the station.
"They said, We're not contributing. We're gambling!' It was, in some ways, not a positive thing, not positive for those people. There were instances where I'd get a phone call the next day saying, My partner blew his paycheck.' It was a difficult thing."
Edgar Cruise, vice mayor of McGrath, said a referendum ended the use of pull-tabs.
"Too many people were squandering their money on rippies," he said.
For the gambler, the faster the action is, the more addictive the game. One reason for the popularity of rippies is the instantaneous feedback. But for the pathological gambler, the hook may be set much deeper than the payoff.
"In our research, pathological gamblers don't gamble to win," said Thomas Moore, acting executive director of the Oregon Gambling Addiction Treatment Foundation.
"Gambling is a method of self-medication. If a person has stress in their life, they can play a game and gambling allows them to get away from that stress.
Experts differ over how to view gambling addictions, Moore said. Many in the psychiatric field see it as a mental health issue, an impulse-control disorder, while addiction counselors tend to see it as a behavioral issue, an addiction disorder.
The foundation recently completed an extensive review of the available literature on gambling addiction.
"The research told us we really don't know what pathological gambling is," he said. "There is a lot of disagreement."
In a survey of 75 pathological gamblers in Oregon, 85 percent reported they'd had a bout with mental illness, such as depression, before the onset of the gambling addiction. More than 70 percent reported trauma stemming from abuse or neglect, mostly during childhood, Moore said.
"What's emerging (in the research) is this whole issue of trauma," he said.
Whatever the cause, for compulsive gamblers hope springs eternal that the big payoff is just around the corner with its promise of life on easy street and never having to work again. That kind of illogical thinking often leads pathological gamblers to rationalize chasing bad bets with money they cannot afford to lose.
Gambling is an "opportunistic pathology," Burgess said. In other words, the gambling addict might just as easily have gravitated toward other addictive behaviors, but gambling was readily available. And, gambling is particularly addictive.
"Intermittent positive reinforcement is extremely powerful. Think about a slot machine. If you keep pulling long enough it will yield," Burgess said.
Statistics show that about 80 percent of Americans gamble in some way at least once a year. One doesn't necessarily have to engage in a recognized gambling activity to be gambling in the broad sense of the word, however.
Casting into a fishing hole even when there are no fish, sometimes missing other obligations in order to pursue the activity longer, is an example, Burgess said. So is day trading on the stock market, in which some traders will go as far as risking their homes on the hope a hot stock's value will jump rapidly.
"The paradigm is exactly the same," Burgess said.
As with other addictions, recovering from a gambling addiction likely means never betting again at anything, said Dr. Nicholas Kletti, medical director of Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Some schools of thought suggest that for some gamblers, it may be possible to bet a little.
"I wouldn't support partial use," he said. "Avoiding is the way to recover."
That's what organizations like Gamblers Anonymous say, as well.
"The first bet to a problem gambler is like the first small drink to an alcoholic," reads an organization pamphlet. "Sooner or later he or she falls back into the same old destructive pattern."
In general, most Alaskans appear to recognize there are dangers inherent in gambling because past attempts to broaden the scope of gaming in Alaska have met with little success.
In 1990, Alaskans easily voted down an initiative that might have opened the door to a wide range of gambling activities.
In some cases, previously permitted gaming has been banned statewide.
In 1994, a proposal for a casino by a Southeast Alaska Native village led the Legislature to eliminate so-called "Monte Carlo Nights," a form of charitable gaming that had the look and feel of real casinos.
The law effectively killed Klawock's bid for a casino.
Status of gaming bills
Interest in various issues concerned with gambling and gaming in Alaska have generated several pieces of legislation now being considered by state lawmakers.
Here is a quick list of those bills.
House Bill 169: This measure, requested by Gov. Frank Murkowski, would increase the amount of revenue to the state from charitable gaming activities. It currently is in the House Finance Committee.
House Bill 232: This measure, sponsored by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, would permit the Homer Mercury Classic, a contest for guessing when the thermometer will reach a certain temperature. It would benefit the Kenai Peninsula Boys and Girls Club. It currently is in the House Finance Committee.
House Bill 240: This measure, sponsored by the House Special Committee on Economic Development, International Trade and Tourism, would create a state lottery. It currently is in the House Special Committee on Ways and Means.
Senate Bill 102: This is a companion bill to House Bill 169 above. It was in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee until Tuesday. See story on page A-1.
Senate Bill 178: This measure, sponsored by Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, would create a state lottery and allow electronic gaming. It currently is in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
Senate Bill 186: This measure, sponsored by Sen. Taylor, would permit use of electronic gaming machines as an authorized form of charitable gaming. It currently is in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
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