Conflicting missions: Lottery's prosperity vs. problem gambling
Wes Wood operated a successful construction business for more than 30 years before he lost it due to compulsive gambling.
Helping his father, Carl, in his battle against Parkinson's disease plunged Wood into clinical depression. His mental health condition combined with exposure to video poker terminals during his work proved to be a costly combination.
"I was predisposed by the depression to set me up to self-medicate," Wood said. "My medication was video poker."
Wood, co-founder of Voices for Problem Gambling Recovery, reclaimed his life by seeking treatment from the Oregon Health Authority for two years, between 2005 and 2007. Since treatment, he said, he has never relapsed.
Pathological gambling possesses the same traits as an addictive disorder such as substance abuse, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
The 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, are offered free of charge to anyone — even out-of-state residents — who has played Oregon Lottery games. Wood and some other recovering gamblers call the free services "pre-paid."
More than half of patients who complete treatment abstain from gambling in the following 12 months, according to follow-up surveys by the Oregon Health Authority, which administers the program.
About 2.6 percent of the population has a gambling problem, according to the health authority. The vast majority of people who seek treatment struggle with a compulsion to gamble on video lottery terminals, said Greta Coe, resource coordinator at the health authority's Addictions and Mental Health Division.
Nearly 12,000 video lottery terminals at 2,229 establishments are scattered around the state, concentrated mostly in the Portland metro area.
Video lottery is big business in Oregon, garnering more than $800 million in sales in recent years. Newberg had $1.1 million in video lotter proceeds.
Unlike substance abuse, the courts have yet to require gambling addiction treatment in criminal cases, where a crime might have been fueled by a gambling problem. Gamblers who seek treatment do so voluntarily, often when they have hit rock bottom.
"They are very desperate," Coe said. "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 treatment services are underutilized, despite nearly 40 percent of Oregonians knowing that the resources exist. Less than 1,100 people entered treatment in 2016. Other forces may be at work, Wood said. There is a growing number of online services, which allow problem gamblers to remain anonymous. Disclosing the problem, or the specifics of monetary losses, is a common problem with compulsive gamblers, Wood said.
Most of the people who enter treatment do so as a result of calling the state's 24-7 problem gambling help line.
"Someone's willingness to reach out for help is a brief moment in their chaos. For a minute or a few minutes, they are willing to try to find a way," Wood said.
"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."
Wood largely blames depression for contributing to his gambling compulsion. Yet without exposure to video lottery terminals, it's unclear whether his addiction would have taken root.
"I remember when video poker came out. ... It was new and fresh to Oregon," he said. "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 lottery is constitutionally charged with earning "maximum profits for the people of Oregon commensurate with the public good." That means expanding the lottery's video lottery terminals and moving toward digital games, which the state announced last month in a draft of its three-year strategic plan.
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 said. "The uniqueness of Oregon is we have some measure of funding for treatment and prevention work guaranteed."