HE STARTED gambling at 14. Poker mostly. Then he graduated to the racetrack.
From then on, he couldn't resist the drug-like rush he felt making a bet.
His compulsive gambling sent him on a downward spiral lasting 24 years and cost him his marriage, family, job and nearly his life. Along the way he spent time in jail and became addicted to painkillers and booze.
"When I get in a racetrack, everything goes."
He stole his kids' newspaper-route money. He sold the family car. He wrote bad cheques and stole money. He once sold a street kid, raffled him off in a gay bar for money to bet away.
"I've wasted 37 years of my life," he says sitting in Windsor's Brentwood Recovery Home for Alcoholics where he's putting the pieces back together.
He would spend hundreds of dollars a week at the track and, occasionally, on lottery tickets. But the money didn't matter: "It's not the money that you blow gambling. It's the thought of winning. You want that big win all the time."
He tells a gruesome story about the other side of reaching for the big pot at the end of the rainbow. But it is a story agencies know too well. . . .
A Gamblers Anonymous spokesman in Detroit says the chapter has about 60 members and helps about five people a year from Windsor. On this side of the border, the closest chapters are in London, Toronto and St. Catharines. The Toronto chapter alone has 100 members.
Also in Toronto, the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling, a non-profit, education and research organization, receives 10 to 15 calls a week for help from across Canada.
EXPERTS SAY gambling has become so socially acceptable that more than 80 per cent of all Canadians gamble. While not as widespread as in the United States, gambling has taken hold, from the office sports pool and 50/50 draws to weekly lottery tickets, nights at the racetrack and weekends in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Since their inception in the early '70s, government lotteries across the U.S. and Canada have become big business. Ontario ticket sales alone top $1 billion a year, reaping more than $320 million in profits.
The prospect of legalized gambling casinos in Detroit, now before the Michigan legislature, has aroused much opposition on both sides of the border, despite proponents who tout economic benefits, including creation of 50,000 jobs. For opponents, research shows the higher the availability of legalized gambling, the greater the incidence of compulsive gambling.
In the Brentwood interview room, the gambler says people like him would fall easy prey to casinos and he agrees the glitzy betting palaces would bring with them a sleazy rogues gallery of pimps, prostitutes and professional criminals.
Only a few of us become compulsive or pathological gamblers, now a recognized illness. They suffer an addiction so strong, an emotional dependence so deep, they lose all control over their lives.
BY ONE COUNT , 80,000 Canadians gamble compulsively, more than 27,000 in Ontario alone, according to a study for the Ontario government several years ago. But other American research places the number much higher - more than three per cent of the North American population or six to eight million with 600,000 to 800,000 in Canada.
Tibor Barsony, executive director of the compulsive gambling foundation, says whatever the figure, government-run lotteries have created a new breed of gambler today and have helped make all gambling more acceptable.
"Before the government lotteries, the only lottery ticket you could buy was the Irish sweepstakes and that was illegal."
In 15 years, government lotteries have become routine. We spend on average about $75 to $100 a year on lottery tickets, and the profits from the past 11 years alone have generated $1.6 billion - the same amount bet on horses at race tracks across Canada last year.
Licensed games of chance in Ontario, from charity bingos and draws to Monte Carlo nights, took in $450 million last year, $300 million at bingo tables alone. In Windsor, bingos and other licensed charity gambling take in $25 million a year, says City Clerk Tom Lynd.
While not opposed to gambling, Barsony worries about its increasing acceptance, the rise in gambling by young people, and warns the stage is being set for a dramatic surge in the number of compulsive gamblers within 10 to 20 years.
"We've created a gambling society. I believe 10 to 20 years from now this country could or probably will have an epidemic on its hands unless we do something about it today."
Despite millions in profits, not a dollar from lotteries has been spent on research and treatment in Canada, says Barsony. The foundation has a proposal for a treatment centre at a Toronto hospital and is seeking $200,000 for research and treatment programs. He says the amount is a pittance compared to the $20 million spent to advertise Ontario lotteries.
Meanwhile, Canada lags 15 years behind the United States in developing treatment for gambling addicts who can attend any one of 20 specialized centres, he says.
A spokesman for the Ontario Lottery Corporation says it only operates the games and hands over profits to government which controls spending. And the government has funded studies of compulsive gambling through the Ministry of Community and Social Services, says Annette Taylor, a public relations co-ordinator.
Both she and Laurie Kipp-Klecha, public relations director for Michigan's Bureau of State Lotteries, say studies show government-run lotteries don't necessarily feed a compulsive gambler's addiction.
Taylor says research shows lotteries don't satisfy compulsive gamblers because of the long odds, little instant gratification and the fact that no skill is needed. Compulsive gamblers also want control over the game, says Kipp-Klecha.
YET STORIES PERSIST of people who've lost their house and lifesavings, and embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy tickets.
A Toronto Gamblers Anonymous spokesman tells of one couple so caught up with running a lottery pool at work they sold everything they had, including their home, and bought tickets.
"After one month, they were totally broke. The end result is they split up. One is on welfare and the other is suffering mental problems."
Most people in Ontario spend less than $120 a year on lottery tickets, according to the lottery corporation. Ken Quinn, public relations spokesman for Windsor Raceway, says such stories, besides damaging to families, also hurt the industry. "We don't want people to lose their house or car." For the industry it can mean losing business. For its part, the track includes a notice in promotional materialfor people "to bet with their head not over it" and to telephone the number for Gamblers Anonymous.
To help curb spending by people who can't afford it but who feel the urge, the track won't cash personal cheques or process credit card cash advances. It regularly runs racing forums to explain betting and horse racing.
For some, says the spokesman for the Toronto Gamblers Anonymous, lotteries can lead to more gambling. In fact, compulsive gambling is the purest kind of addiction, says Barsony, himself a counsellor to compulsive gamblers in jail and out.
Besides the human cost, he points out there is economic loss, considering time away from work. When a compulsive gambler goes down the drain as many as seven other people, including family, may be involved and hurt in the process.
"All I thought about was myself and the racetrack," the gambler in Brentwood says. "I was putting everything under phoney names. My own name was just burnt out. When a bill would run up so high, I would just get more phoney identification.
"I blew a lot money at the racetrack."
ANOTHER GAMBLER nods grimly and tells his own story: "The first time I went to the racetrack I was hooked. It was always in my mind. Get that one big hit. It never happened."
Now seeking treatment at Brentwood, he's overcoming both his gambling and alcohol addiction.
It's not unusual for one person to suffer both, says counsellor Sam Devin. "The alcoholic personality is in the gambler."
Windsor psychologist Morrie Kleinplatz has written a paper on compulsive gambling and says for many the addiction becomes an escape mechanism, a problem-solver. But they find themselves on a treadmill because the very thing that makes their pain and problems go away later increases their pain and problems. So they seek more gambling. "It's a vicious circle and they find they're hooked," Kleinplatz says.
Compulsive gamblers may suffer an irrational fantasy there is a certain something about themselves they're going to win. Or, unconsciously, they really want to lose because in some way they feel they deserve to be punished. Once hooked, they crave the action, "the high of winning," says Kleinplatz. "It's the rush of the experience which is equivalent to the guy who's going to shoot up."
Like social and problem drinking, there is gambling and compulsive gambling, he says. A person's psychological makeup may simply have a weak spot which may make them more prone to depression and loss of self-esteem and more vulnerable to gambling, he says. So while some simply have fun playing the game, making the bet, for others it's an overwhelmingly pleasurable, exciting, drug-like experience.
BARSONY SAYS compulsive gamblers feel a tremendous urge to be liked and they seek approval. "It's terribly important to him that people say, 'He's a really great guy.' "
But many feel a depth of insecurity and inferiority few can appreciate.
Kleinplatz says self-help groups like Gamblers Anonymous provide a support system and offer help not only for the gambler but for the family as well through Gam-Anon groups.
"We have a very strong Gam-Anon," says the Toronto chapter spokesman. "The wife and children feel they are to blame. There's a tremendous amount of guilt. They go crazy trying to figure out how they contributed."
In the U.S., compulsive gamblers who fall out of Gamblers Anonymous despite time in the self-help program seek the specialized treatment centres.
Devin says Brentwood provides programs that go beyond the addiction.
"We treat the whole person, the cause, the fantasies, the insecurities, the lack of responsibility, the lack of honesty. All that has to be treated before anything is going to happen."
None of the compulsive gamblers is involved in the centre's bingo hall, one of its main sources of funding. The bingo brings in $750,000 a year and the centre is seeking operating grant money from government.
Meanwhile, Devin says, the money is putting lives back together.
Compulsive Gambling: The Addictive Nightmare
It's eight o'clock in a basement room of Notre-Dame-de-Saint-Esprit church in Vanier, and the boys are getting ready for a soul session.
All nine have a cross to bear; they are compulsive gamblers. They hate it, they admit it, and they have come to repent.
It's another Monday night for the disciples of Gamblers Anonymous, a Los Angeles-based self-help group modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous. Only a crawl away from the church bingo hall next door, the men, three of them with their wives, have come to testify to the bane of their lives and to take comfort in each other's true confessions.
In between the ashtrays, a black-and-white sign establishes the secrecy of the occasion. In awkward English, much the way the men talk, it reads: "Whom you see here - What you hear here - What you leave here - LET IT STAY HERE."
Seated around a small oval table in the centre of the room, the nine men and three women sip instant coffee from plastic cups, smoke and wait for Andre, tonight's chairman, to begin.
"The dates, then," he says, and one by one the men tell the group when they gambled last. For some, it was as long as 12 months before this meeting, for others just a week. All have quit before and begun again, like chain smokers or alcoholics. But each says the last time was his very last. It has to be that way, they say.
Tonight will be "therapy" night, Andre says. He's been waiting a month and a half to work up the courage to bare his soul and to "come clean."
"My name is Andre, and I am a compulsive gambler."
"Hello, Andre," the group choruses.
"And I have not gambled for two months, 13 days and 20 hours."
As if on cue, there is an enthusiastic round of applause.
Andre takes a deep breath, stares a hole in his ashtray, and begins.
"I suppose my story starts in 1979. I can remember when my son was born. There I was with my wife in the hospital, and I was nervous like everyone else. I'd bought a lottery ticket that day, the first one I'd ever bought, because I figured it would bring good luck for the family. There I was, standing in the corridor, playing with this ticket in my pocket, thinking what we could buy for the baby with the money.
" Well, as it turned out, I ended up winning $1,800. Sure, some of it went to buy the baby's clothes. But the rest went into more lottery tickets. I figured my luck would hold out. I was hooked.
"I'd be in the office, at my desk, and instead of doing work I'd be filling in 100 squares of Lotto 6-49 tickets. Then at night I'd go to the race track and blow away the money I wasn't spending on the lotteries. Back home, I'd be making excuses right, left and centre.
" I can't begin to remember all the stories, all the money I spent, all the lies I told my wife. "
Andre's wife found out all the same. One morning she found a massive credit card bill detailing a series of cash advances. She confronted him, he made up stories and she left him.
She didn't go far. At the prompting of a neighbour, she strode back into the house, told Andre he was " sick " and implored him to attend a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. After some hesitation, he went, and now says the group has turned his life around.
" The biggest headache in my life is arrested now, and that's gambling. With the grace of God, it'll stay that way. "
The group applauds its chairman, and there's quiet as another speaker works up his courage.
The men all have a story to tell. They've been telling them in this church basement, home of the Ottawa chapter since 1984. They're not alone.
The self-help network has expanded worldwide since its founding in 1957. About 12,000 people in 700 chapters attend weekly and sometimes nightly meetings in the United States. In Great Britain, there are 150 meetings a week. The first Canadian chapters were opened in Montreal 20 years ago, and today there are groups across the country. Typical attendance at the weekly meetings ranges from 10 to 30, most of them regulars. Some are reformed alcoholics. Most say they couldn't live without G.A.
" This is where you come when you've hit rock bottom, " says Bert. " You've got nowhere to look but up. Otherwise you're staring at the grave. "
There isn't a major city in Canada that doesn't have a horse track, a town that doesn't have a bingo hall, a corner store that doesn't sell lottery tickets, a charity that isn't scrambling for licences to operate casinos, hold raffles and sell pull-tickets.
In 1986, Canadians shelled out $2.7 billion for lottery tickets, bet another $1.6 billion at the track, and according to police estimates, gambled away millions more in illegal money pyramid schemes, chain letters, back-room card and domino games, and sports wagers.
Ontarians spent $1 billion on provincial lottery tickets in 1985, and in 1986 gambled another $890 million at the track, $300 million on bingo and $150 million on raffles and special-events nights.
It's in this new gambling-saturated environment that the theory of compulsive gambling as a mental illness has come under public scrutiny.
A World Health Organization directory of all known mental and physical diseases, called the International Classification of Diseases, included pathological gambling in its latest edition, published in 1979. The previous 1968 edition made no mention of it.
In North America, there's the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published every 10 years by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The manual lists all known psychiatric diseases subject to psychiatric treatment. In 1980, for the third edition, pathological gambling was added to the list.
The APA manual is a bible for Canadian psychiatrists, according to Dr. Rufino Balmeceda, a forensic psychiatrist at the the Royal Ottawa Hospital.
Balmeceda says last year he used the manual to diagnose 10 compulsive gamblers referred to him through the courts. He adds that number would be higher if most compulsive gamblers would accept that they have the problem and come out of hiding, not wait for a judge to tell them.
It's hard to say how many compulsive gamblers there are in Canada. Unlike the United States - where the first major survey of gambling behavior was carried out in 1975 - there has been little research into the problem in Canada.
Last year, social workers at York University in Toronto made an attempt. Their study calculated a minimum of 80,000 compulsive gamblers in Canada, 27,000 of them in Ontario. It cautioned the estimate was " conservative. " Its calculations were extrapolated from a 1974 U.S. Federal Gaming Commission study that put the number of compulsive gamblers in the U.S. at 1.1 million, or less than one per cent of the population. Given more recent U.S. estimates of three to six million, the Canadian figure could have risen accordingly to half a million, or about two per cent of the population.
Andre isn't surprised. " If every compulsive gambler were to admit to their problem and come to the meetings, then we'd have to rent out the Civic Centre. "
For the worst of them - the gamblers too depressed, troubled and ridden with self-doubt to draw on the encouragement doled out at G.A. meetings - there's the alternative of treatment in a special psychiatric clinic. Fifteen years ago, there was none. The first opened at a Cleveland hospital in 1972, and today there are 29 across the United States.
At the clinics patients are given educational lectures on addictions, attend " living skills " workshops, go through small-group psychotherapy and have their day's activity set out for them by trained staff.
Studies show the " cure " works: more than half had stopped gambling a year after they left. The success rate at G.A. meetings is more modest: only a quarter of those who attend give it up.
There are no clinics in Canada - yet.
A Toronto lobby group is trying to change that. Boasting a blue-ribbon board of directors - chaired by former Liberal cabinet minister Paul Hellyer - the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling is leading the first campaign in Canada to provide institutional help to compulsive gamblers.
This year, the foundation drew up a plan for the first treatment clinic for pathological gambling in Canada, based on American models, with a budgeted opening cost of $200,000. The proposed clinic would operate out of the psychiatric unit of the York Finch General Hospital in Toronto.
Tibor Barsony, executive director of the foundation, admits the cost is high, but insists the need is there to justify it.
" Right now, you have Gambler's Anonymous, and that's good, " says Barsony, a Toronto accountant and longtime G.A. member. " But there are thousands of people in Canada today who need the services of a professional clinic, where they can be diagnosed and treated individually. There needs to be some kind of constant monitoring of their condition, more than they get at a G.A. meeting once a week in an informal setting. "
Barsony compares the compulsive gambling clinic to treatment facilities for victims of alcohol and drug abuse. If, as the York University study suggests, compulsive gambling is second only to alcohol and drug as the major form of addiction in Canada, why are there no comparable facilities to treat the addiction? Barsony says it boils down to " public awareness and exposure. "
" Pathological gambling is today what alcoholism was several decades ago. It's a hidden disease. "
Barsony feels money should be allocated to treatment of compulsive gamblers.
" There's no reason why a government that sells lottery tickets, for example, couldn't put some of that money into helping the people who can't control their impulse to gamble. It makes no sense to legitimize something and then turn your back on the inevitable. "
Away from the psychiatrists' offices and ministers' chambers that are the setting of Barsony's work, there's another place where compulsive gambling is getting a hearing: in the oak-panelled rooms of provincial courthouses.
Many compulsive gamblers end up here, charged with theft, break and enter, fraud - all crimes committed to finance their addiction.
The 16-member anti-gaming squad of the Metro Toronto police makes close to 1,000 arrests a year, and Ottawa police make another 40, for gambling-related criminal offences such as book-making and operating a gaming house.
In May, Ottawa-area police culminated a seven-month undercover investigation of local bookmaking operations with the arrest of 35 suspected bookies. It was one of the largest bookmaking investigations ever carried out in Ontario, involving an estimated $70 million a year in illegal bets on professional and college sports. Much of the money is thought to have been wagered by compulsive gamblers.
The most spectacular case involving a compulsive gambler came five years ago, when Toronto anti-gaming police arrested Brian Patrick Moloney, a mild-mannered 27-year-old assistant manager of a downtown bank, after he stepped off a Learjet from Atlantic City. Moloney had been making regular trips to casinos there and in Las Vegas for more than a year, playing the tables with some $7 million embezzled from his bank. A preferred customer, he lost every cent, sometimes gambling away as much as a million dollars a sitting and betting as much as $75,000 a hand at baccarat.
In his defence, lawyer Edward Greenspan described Moloney as a compulsive gambler, and told the court he could not control his " addiction. " The judge was sympathetic, but sentenced Moloney to six years in jail. The trial reportedly marked the first time in Canada that the mitigating defence of compulsive gambling had been used in pleading guilty to a crime.
Since then, compulsive gambling has entered into at least three more criminal cases before the Canadian courts. In 1983, another Toronto bank employee, 35-year-old teller Patricia Yvonne Smith, was found to have defrauded her company of $183,000. She had used the money to finance lottery ticket binges, buying more than $5,000 worth a week from a corner variety store. And in January Toronto lawyer William Marinac was disbarred and sentenced to five years in prison for defrauding clients, relatives and business associates of some $1.2 million. The court learned he had gambled most of it away at racetracks and casinos in Las Vegas and The Bahamas.
The third case passed unnoticed in Ottawa provincial court in February. It involved a G.A. regular named Richard D., charged with various property crimes, break and enter and theft. (Richard agreed to be interviewed on condition his last name not be revealed.)
Two years ago, the 40-year-old book salesman and ex-con was caught trying to break into someone's house. Faced with his fourth two-year term for break and entering, Richard looked for a way out, and found it.
He told his lawyer, Mike Neville, he was a compulsive gambler, and that he had committed his crimes solely to finance his habit - playing the horses at Rideau Carleton Raceway and other tracks across North America.
Richard asked Neville to get his trial adjourned to the latest possible date. In the meantime, at the instigation of his wife, he went to his first G.A. meeting.
" I figured it would help me in my sentencing, " he admits in an interview." I thought 'I'll get involved, I'll let the courts know I'm doing something, let my wife know I'm doing something.' But after eight, 10, 12, 15 meetings, it got to the point that I was coming for me. "
Neville cited Richard's voluntary attendance at the meetings when the case finally came to trial in February. He also compiled a portfolio of literature on the problem of compulsive gambling, and had Richard evaluated by forensic psychiatrists.
Provincial court Judge James Fontana was so impressed with Neville's submissions, he suspended sentence and put Richard on probation. One of the conditions was that he continue to attend G.A. meetings.
Neville says Richard's case proves G.A. works, and he questions the need for treatment facilities staffed by psychiatrists, when " the best help you can get is from the group G.A. " He says the cost just might not be worth it.
Back at the G.A. basement in Vanier, the confessions are winding up. Bert tells the group about upcoming parties and reunions. " Bring a couple of cokes or something, " he says, " and if you don't have the money to front, don't worry about it. "
He calls for contributions. " We are a self-supporting organization, if I may remind you. " The bills come flying down from all sides as the group gets up to leave.
" Place your bets, ladies and gents, " he says.
" Oh, Bert, " someone's wife groans.
The Despair of Compulsive Gambling
The six men sit in a loose circle, smoking heavily and talking quietly.
Charlie, nervous, tall and thin, tells of the days he always wore gold chains because he could pawn them quickly. Mike, big, gruff and overbearing, says he used to take his car ownership to the track so he could sell his Corvette to play the triactor.
Wally, shy and quiet in the corner, talks in a slow Texas drawl of offering 47 points on a high school football game and carrying $13,000 in action to the washroom.
Tom, elegant and seemingly composed, tells of losing a $4 million inheritance in high-stakes poker while he managed the family jewelry chain.
The talk continues - of dogs, horses, cards, dice and money, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
These are not men sitting around a bar and exchanging tall tales of wonderful wins and conquests. These are compulsive gamblers, men so sick and traumatized, that they have been admitted to the Veterans Administration Medical Centre of Ohio, which offers the only publicly-funded treatment of pathological gambling in North America.
There's a move now in Metro Toronto to recognize compulsive gambling as a disease and set up a similar public centre to help the sick men and women who are hooked on everything from sports betting to the track.
Ohio experts say the growth in gambling in both countries shows more and more facilities like Brecksville must be established and funded because for these men, the centre is the final option. The next step may be suicide.
"This disease is a ride on a car called destruction. You quite simply burst through the gates of hell but you can't find a ride out yourself because you're someplace you've never been and someplace you know nothing about. It destroys not only we who suffer from it, but also the relationship with everyone we know and especially the ones who love us."
That's Jim talking. He's reading his autobiography, a mandatory part of his 30-day treatment program. He's about to be thrown out of the Navy because of time missed while he went to the dog tracks of Florida. His wife has left him. He has more than $15,000 in bad cheques outstanding and he's an alcoholic. He's just discovered he's cross-addicted.
He never knew that gambling - a socially accepted form of legal recreation - could take over and control.
Compulsive gambling was recognized as a disease in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association and in the United States today, the National Federation for Study and Treatment of Pathological Gambling estimates, 10 million Americans have the disease. It emphasizes that the total is "very conservative.
In Canada, the total is estimated at 1 million. The money lost is $10 billion there, $1 billion here.
Only now are psychiatrists and psychologists talking of cure, but Canada, where we spent nearly $2 billion on lotteries, $1.9 billion at the track and uncounted illegal millions on the National Footbal League, baseball, cards, basketball and even hockey, has no treatment facilities for compulsive gamblers.
The only option for a person with this now-recognized disease is Gamblers' Anonymous which operates a tiny Toronto chapter that averages 200 people a year.
The Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) officially does not recognize compulsive gambling as a disease qualifying for coverage. But the plan will pay up to 75 per cent under an umbrella policy to people like compulsive gamblers who can prove their addiction is part of an emotional disorder that can't be treated here.
Three Canadians have gone through the treatment procedure at Brecksville, 30 kilometres from Cleveland. All got free help, but only because they served at one time in the U.S. armed forces.
The option for others - if a family, doctor or group of friends can find the money - is three in-residence programs that cost a minimum $1,500 (U.S.) a week for a minimum stay of 4 to 6 weeks.
"We have people here in Ontario, here in Toronto, who are dying because they cannot get help," says Tibor Barsony, the executive director of the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling, a tiny group that is fighting a lone battle against what Barsony calls "this most insidious of diseases."
"We can't do a damn thing about it. We've had people come to us, begging, yes begging, for help. But there's nowhere to turn, nowhere to go. If we try to arrange help in the United States, it falls apart. It doesn't matter what OHIP pays, the gambler can't come up with the rest. He'd rather take it to the track."
That's why Barsony is lobbying hard now for establishment of a program in Toronto.
He has approached Dr. Gordon Bell, the head of Bellwood Health Services Inc. and a renowned expert in alcoholism, to set up a gambling clinic.
The foundation has also approached both levels of government for funding for its education program - it wants to expand to the school level because it has been proven compulsive gamblers start as early as elementary school - and feels OHIP should fund any professional unit to help pathological gamblers.
"OHIP pays millions for treatment of alcoholics but has so far not even recognized compulsive gambling as a disease. If we had a clinic in Toronto, the major gambling centre in Canada, we could help people. The travel expense (to the U.S.) wouldn't exist. People could get treatment here."
Barsony, while lauding group therapy programs like Gamblers' Anonymous, says a compulsive gambler needs more help, support services in psychiatry, psychology and social welfare. And he says the governments should fund the new programs.
"The gambling seed was planted 10 to 15 years ago with the lotteries. Now the lotteries are expanding more and more. We are afraid we'll face a new social epidemic in 5 to 10 years."
Which brings us to the 24th floor of 2 Bloor St. in Toronto, to a corner office with a panoramic view of everything that's good in Metro. Here sits Norman Morris, the head of the Ontario Lottery Corp. and a man who admits it may be time for "social awareness" on the part of his lottery corporation - a business that last year made $216 million in profit for the provincial government on sales of $661 million.
But the lottery corporation has no control over its huge profits. The money goes to the provincial government and it makes all decisions on grants.
"I have the same concerns about compulsive gambling as I would have about drunk driving," Morris says, and he emphasizes that no studies exist to prove that lotteries are turning people into pathological players.
"We have to be concerned that our product does not cause social problems. There is little literature on this subject but basically, what's there has shown that lotteries don't fill the needs of a compulsive gambler. He's got to control a situation and he can't do that with lotteries because so much is random chance."
But Morris, a kindly white-haired man who is as concerned with social problems as he is about finding a new money-making game for the province, admits the winds of change are sweeping over the lottery game.
"We belong to the North American Society of State lotteries and we have suggested the overall body do something into the study of compulsive gambling."
Asked if he would support a Metro or Ontario centre to help compulsive gambling - similar to Brecksville - Morris said he could only answer as a citizen because all lottery profits are administered by the province, not his corporation.
"But as a citizen, I would have to tell you that if we have people walking our streets with mental and psychological problems, we should do something about it."
Morris, however, says Ontario has a player base of 57 per cent of the population who buy lottery tickets. But it also has one of the lowest spending rates in Canada. "We feel more comfortable with acceptance of lotteries than a high spending level. Our goal is to ensure the spending doesn't get out of hand and that's why our commercials carefully show that no one wins a large sum of money."
Linda Bell, the vice-president of Bellwoods, says the clinic has been approached to set up a gambling program and is now trying to determine "if we could provide the proper services."
Malcolm Gibson, the general manager of OHIP, says the question of gambling treatment is "tricky."
"If a person sought treatment purely for compulsive gambling, I would say OHIP couldn't provide coverage. But compulsive gambling could be a composite emotional disorder. There is an umbrella policy to cover this. The person would have to demonstrate that no treatment was available here for that specific problem."
Robert Stephens, a spokesman for Health Minister Murray Elston, said OHIP would pay up to 75 per cent of medical treatment in the United States if similar treatment was not available here. It would not cover private clinics.
In the question of a funding request from the Canadian foundation, Stephens said the group approached the government a year ago for money (it received a
$40,000 grant from the ministry of culture last year) and was told to resubmit its application. "So far it hasn't been resubmitted."
Treatment. The Brecksville program, which started in 1972 with two people, is now recognized as the definitive solution for compulsive gambling even though its success rate is only 57 per cent.
The gamblers' ward, the third floor of a depressingly institutionalized building, has 52 beds. Most are filled by cross- addicted veterans, but there are six "pure" compulsive gamblers. The rest mix gambling, drugs and booze.
The centre goes far beyond the group therapy of Gamblers' Anonymous. It offers rehabilitative medicine, vocational counselling, neurology, full psychological testing, surgical services and even drugs, like lithium. It averages 100 gamblers a year on a 30-day program.
Once in, the subject is not allowed out. If he walks out, or can't take it, he's not allowed back. There are no passes, no weekends off and no sympathy. There is understanding, but the subject is encouraged to build from within.
"The first thing is to get them in quickly. Some are suicidal," says Dr. Bonnie Adkins, the friendly woman who runs the Brecksville program, "and we have to assess quickly and get them on some form of abstinence. We find it takes at least a week for gamblers to clear their heads. Some are withdrawn, some are nervous and shaky. Most can't sleep."
In the 14 years since the program started, Adkins says the clinic has discovered several patterns: Most compulsive gamblers are male, for example, most had childhood traumas at some time or another and most started gambling in school.
"We've found it's a progressive disease. I'd compare it to alcoholism but most started with things like marbles or baseball cards. Then suddenly, after acceptance, the disease takes over. It causes interference with the job, college or a relationship. Suddenly, the gambler loses control. He just can't stop."
"It's not about money, it's mental. We're studying now the possibility that a gambler has a mental disorder, a huge release of endorphins when he plays. This contributes to increased adrenalin flow.
"With the gambler, it's action and excitement. First there's anticipation, then fun, then depression and intoxication. It's much like alcohol in terms of the cycle, but the difference is nothing is put in the body. But something definitely goes on."
Compulsive gamblers are also verbal, egotistical and narcissistic. Most do well in their jobs - "as long as they last" - and most have an average or above-average intellect. "These are not dumb people; these are active people, leaders."
Reading, writing and raising: Poker boom being picked up by younger crowd
Kevin figures about half the male students at his suburban high school are regular poker players.
It's the latest teen rite of passage -- a little low-budget action on the weekend.
He started playing at age 15.
By the end of his senior year, the now 17-year-old was hunting bigger games.
He frequented illegal poker clubs on Long Island, where your birthdate would be overlooked if your bankroll was big enough.
He dropped $2,000 betting during a family vacation in the Caribbean. When his job managing an ice cream shop conflicted with poker nights, he quit.
As his losses inevitably swelled, Kevin started looting a $30,000 US college fund set up by his parents.
"I didn't care if I won or lost," said Kevin, who went through $7,000 in three months. "I just wanted to gamble."
Experts fear the country's growing obsession with poker is putting teens at their highest risk ever for compulsive betting.
"I get calls from parents and kids, some as young as 14, every day," said Arnie Wexler, a counsellor and former head of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling. "I've never seen anything explode like this has in the last year."
Poker, particularly the incredibly popular Texas Hold 'Em version played in the $56-million World Series of Poker, stands alongside hip-hop and video games as pillars of youth culture.
According to a study by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, 15.9 per cent of in-state students between the sixth and 12th grades admit to gambling-related woes or signs of addiction.
Four per cent reported stealing money from relatives to gamble.
A national survey showed a huge increase in card-playing among males ages 14 to 22, with the number of youths reporting they gambled in card games at least once a week jumping from 6.2 per cent in 2003 to 11.4 per cent last year -- an increase of 84 per cent.
The vast majority of poker players are males.
It's easier for a teenager to place a bet than to buy a six-pack of beer or a pack of cigarettes.
And more teens are taking advantage of the easy access to gambling, with dreams of making easy money.
"Poker is huge," said Kevin.
There are no definitive national statistics on the number of teenagers battling compulsive gambling problems.
But Ed Looney, who followed Wexler as head of the New Jersey council, cites the 80-15-5 rule.
"Eighty per cent of the kids who gamble, there will be no impact on their lives," Looney said.
"Fifteen per cent will have some problem. And five per cent will become addicted."
Compulsive Gambling problem is no clinical illness
Richard E. Vatz is professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson State University. Lee S. Weinberg is associate professor in the graduate school of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
IN MID-1989, it was revealed that baseball hero Pete Rose had lost over half a million dollars through heavy gambling losses.
After weeks of bad press following a denial that he had a "problem" with gambling, Rose made a public "admission" that he had what his recently acquired psychiatrist called "a clinically significant gambling disorder" that rendered him "powerless" over his gambling. He then went on a media tour, during which he was greeted by a lengthy standing ovation from Phil Donahue's television audience and congratulations for his "admission" from Barbara Walters.
The so-called disease of compulsive gambling transformed Pete Rose from reckless miscreant to courageous victim. Since then, uncritical acceptance of compulsive gambling as an "illness" and "uncontrollable" has abounded.
Last year, Chet Forte, a former producer of ABC Monday Night Football and a heavy gambler, was convicted of bank fraud and income tax irregularities; when representatives of Gamblers Anonymous testified at a post-trial hearing, he got off with a suspended sentence.
When Robert Terry, the Philadelphia Inquirer's chief police reporter, was found to have borrowed money from the city police commissioner to finance his gambling, he was suspended, but the paper accepted his explanation that he had the "disease" of gambling and kept him on full-time "administrative duties."
THE PROBLEM is that there is no evidence that "compulsive gambling" is a disease or that it is uncontrollable. What has happened is that entrepreneurs have begun applying to people who gamble too much the same dubious medical-therapeutic language that has been applied to people who drink too much.
The groundwork for the successful promotion of the disease model for heavy gambling was laid more than a decade ago. In 1980, after years of unflagging advocacy, the late Dr. Robert Custer persuaded the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to elevate gambling to a "disorder of impulse control not elsewhere classified." The APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual was revised accordingly.
The manual, though, lists no medical criteria for pathological gambling. This is less than surprising given that there is no credible evidence of any neurochemical or neurophysiological status causally linked to heavy gambling. No study has found any neurobiological status specific to "compulsive gamblers" as contrasted with other excitable people.
Nevertheless, the impulse to attribute gambling to biology, like the impulse to find biological explanations for alcoholism and criminality, runs strong in our culture.
The most reputable researchers in the gambling field ultimately acknowledge there is no evidence gambling is a disease.
But proof, or even evidence, is not essential for those who believe that gambling is a disease. What matters is that the medicalization of heavy gambling is seen as beneficial to the gambler.
ONE OF THE advantages of the "preferred conceptualization" is that it can be used to excuse a multitude of sins. Valerie Lorenz, the executive director of the National Centre for Pathological Gambling, counsels that "the expert witness for the compulsive gambler facing legal charges" must "educate" judges and others as to the "illness" of the "compulsive gambler" in order to avoid the unfair punishment of those who are "seriously disturbed" and "out of control."
Which, of course, begs the question of "control." Since researchers have found no biological explanation for the lack of control exercised by heavy gamblers, they have simply accepted the claims of gamblers that they were unable to control themselves - a potentially circular and self-serving claim. If gambling is a disease, the gambler doesn't have to take responsibility.
There's no question Americans gamble a lot. Four out of five Americans gamble in some form, spending $20 billion on state lottery games and as much as $50 billion in illegal gambling schemes.
Ultimately, the debate about "compulsive" gambling, like the debate about other self-destructive or socially unacceptable behaviors ranging from "compulsive" sex to "compulsive" drinking to "compulsive" shopping, ultimately comes down to a single question: Should individuals who engage in these behaviors be "excused" on the grounds that they "suffer from" a "disorder"?
It is time for skepticism. A gambler's admission that he cannot control his gambling may constitute not the beginning of better behavior, but the final step in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The belief that a habit is uncontrollable and biological in nature may actually discourage people from trying to stop behaving in a self-destructive manner since the heart of the problem is located in their genes, not in their priorities.