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Lottery prosperity vs. problem gambling
For 30 years, Wes Wood operated a successful construction business in Portland. Then, in the late 1990s, his father's Parkinson's disease progressed to a point where he needed constant care.
Helping his father Carl battle the progressive neurological disorder for more than 10 years plunged Wood into clinical depression. But that was only half his battle. During Wood's business travel across Oregon, he encountered video poker terminals at restaurants and bars — and his compromised mental health condition and easy access to state-sanctioned gambling machines proved to be a costly combination.
"I was predisposed by the depression to set me up to self-medicate." Wood says. "My medication was video poker."
Wood reclaimed his life by seeking free treatment facilitated by the Oregon Health Authority for two years, between 2005 and 2007. Since treatment, he says, he has never relapsed. And in 2007, he joined an effort to found Voices of Problem Gambling Recovery.
But Wood's story is not the norm.
Only a minority of problem gamblers seek treatment in Oregon, and the state is unsure how to change that, even as it embarks on a new initiative, announced last month, to bring state-sanctioned gambling to our smartphones.
Lottery critics worry the expansion could draw in a new generation of problem gamblers, younger people who now statistically engage in gambling at a lower rate than their elders, in part due to the absence of gambling from mobile devices in Oregon.
"I am worried about our young people and ... what that can mean to their lives," says Rose Kuhnau, a peer support specialist with Mental Health Association of Oregon. Progressing into online gambling "is a slippery slope, and it's dangerous."
Oregon health officials estimate that about 2.6 percent of the adult population in the state has a gambling problem. That pencils out to about 90,000 people — about the same as the population of Bend.
To deal with that staggering statistic, the Oregon Legislature appropriates 1 percent of lottery profits, or about $5 million per year, to problem gambling prevention and treatment programs.
Treatment, including outpatient, residential and respite services, is offered free of charge to anyone — even out-of-state residents — who have played Oregon Lottery games, or family members and others who have been affected by compulsive gambling. Wood and some other recovering gamblers call the free services "pre-paid."
And for the vast majority of people, the treatment works, at least in the short-term. More than half of the patients who complete treatment abstain from gambling in the following 12 months, according to follow-up surveys by the Oregon Health Authority.
The problem is, even though the gambling treatment is free and effective, few in Oregon seek it.
Admitting there's a problem
A pathological gambler possesses the same traits as someone with an addictive disorder such as substance abuse, according to the American Psychiatric Association. But in contrast to substance-abuse cases, courts rarely require gambling-addiction treatment in criminal cases where a crime might have been fueled by a gambling problem.
Gamblers who seek treatment largely do so voluntarily, often after they hit rock bottom.
"They are very desperate," says Greta Coe, resource coordinator at the health authority's Addictions and Mental Health Division. "They could be suicidal because they just can't continue on the same path they have been going on, and they are circling out of control and don't know how to bring themselves back."
As a result of being exclusively voluntary, Oregon's free treatment services are underutilized, despite nearly 40 percent of Oregonians knowing that the resources exist. Most of the people who enter treatment do so as a result of calling the state's 24-7 problem gambling help line, Coe says. But fewer than 1,100 people entered treatment in 2016.
Other forces may be at work, Wood says: Many compulsive gamblers are reluctant to disclose their problem or the specifics of their monetary losses. But there is a growing number of online treatment services, which allow problem gamblers to remain anonymous.
"Someone's willingness to reach out for help is a brief moment in their chaos," Wood says. "For a minute or a few minutes, they are willing to try to find a way. But if treatment is not done in a way that makes the compulsive gambler feel comfortable, the door will close. They will find a time and place and gamble again."
In treatment, a counselor and the problem gambler agree to a way to immediately stop the gambler's access to money. That can mean disclosing the problem to family members and turning finances over to a fiduciary.
"Treatment is about stopping the chaos, which in an actual clinical setting means stopping access to money," Wood says. "That usually means, in some form acceptable to the client, creating money barriers, which scares the hell out of a problem gambler because it means full disclosure."
The counselor then will help the client face and deal with the problems or mental health issues that led to the pathological gambling habit.
Voices for Problem Gambling Recovery helps provide mentoring services to problem gamblers, reaches out to the public, spreads awareness about the problem and available services, and advocates for local and state policies that help prevent compulsive gambling. Wood, for example, is a familiar face at Oregon Lottery Commission meetings and often speaks during the meetings' comment period.
The nonprofit group holds a community forum on the fourth Monday of every month to highlight services available to problem gamblers. Meeting times and locations are posted on the group's website.
Wood largely blames depression for contributing to his gambling compulsion. Yet without exposure to video poker terminals, it's likely his addiction would never have taken root, Wood says.
Lottery terminals the most addictiveThe vast majority of people who seek treatment struggle with a compulsion to gamble on video lottery terminals, says Coe of the health authority's Addictions and Mental Health Division. Nearly 12,000 video lottery terminals at 2,229 establishments are scattered around the state of Oregon, concentrated in the Portland metro area.
And video lottery is big business in Oregon, garnering more than $800 million in sales in recent years. In Lake Oswego alone in the 2016-17 fiscal year, players brought in just under $5.2 million in sales. Wilsonville, with more outlets located close to I-5, brought in just under $7 million; in West Linn, the total was $2.8 million.
"I remember when video poker came out," Wood says. "It was new and fresh to Oregon. I had done work in other places like Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe where there was an intense environment of gambling, but it never affected me in that way."
The state lottery is constitutionally charged with earning "maximum profits for the people of Oregon commensurate with the public good." The agency takes this as a mandate to constantly expand the lottery's video lottery terminals. Along those lines, the Lottery called for moving into smartphone-based gambling in a draft of its three-year strategic plan released last month.
For a fraction of the public most prone to compulsive gambling, the missions are inherently in conflict.
"There is a social impact in knowing that in Oregon currently there are roughly 82,000 people (who are compulsive gamblers)," Wood says. "The uniqueness of Oregon is we have some measure of funding for treatment and prevention work guaranteed."
24-hour problem gambling hotline: Call 1-877-MYLIMIT or text to 503-713-6000
Oregon Problem Gambling Resource website: http://www.OPGR.org
Oregon Voices for Problem Gambling Recovery monthly community forums: http://www.vpgr.net/get-involved
Where's the money being spent? There are 15 video lottery locations in Lake Oswego. Between June 2016 and June 2017, they had the following in sales:
Speakeasy Bar & Grill: $928,932
Grampy's Deli: $823,533
Walter Mitty's: $492,820
Hanko's Sports Bar & Grill: $422,580
Mac's Market & Deli: $421,413
Berkeley's Bar & Grill: $389,169
Peppers Deli: $378,273
Firehouse Pub: $271,363
Gemini Bar & Grill: $268,595
Szechuan Kitchen: $226,045
Nicoli's Grill & Sports Bar: $206,529
Momo Sushi: $152,819
Corona Family Mexican Restaurant: $125,967
Blue Star Lounge: $77,562
JJ's Pub: $9,448