MA Plan Would Allow Casinos, But Only if Counselors Come Too
> 11/1/2007 8:37:57 AM

Some people can enjoy gambling as entertainment, and they can vacation at or live near casinos with little compulsion to gamble; however, around 2% of the general population will at some point fall prey to gambling addiction. This rate increases manyfold within fifty miles of any casino, which is why Massachusetts is divided over a new plan by Governor Deval Patrick to allow casinos to operate in the state. The three proposed casinos will create 20,000 jobs and generate millions of dollars for the state, but critics counter that they may cost even more people their jobs, houses, and lives.

To appease critics, Governor Patrick proposed a regulation requiring casinos to use 2.5% of their revenue to set up on-site addiction counseling centers. This would be the first instance of such facilities in America, though counseling centers have been operating in multiple Canadian casinos. Governor Patrick claims that he was assured of the viability of the model by studying these Canadian centers, but rigorous scientific study is required before their effectiveness can be evaluated.

A plan to situate addiction centers in casinos comes with advantages, and disadvantages. On the positive side, on-site centers serve as hard-to-ignore warning signs for everyone in the casino. Patrons can see that gambling addiction is a very real possibility, as is treatment.  Pathological gamblers are unlikely to  seek out even easily-accessable health because they are often blind to the dangers of their behavior,  but on-site counselors may be able to find those with problems. This proactive method is already employed at the Canadian Casino Regina. Laurie Norman, the head of the "responsible gaming" center, describes a system wherin: "Everyone is trained to recognize red-flag gaming behaviors, even the janitors on floor." Casino employees look out for extreme shows of emotion and erratic behavior. For example, if they notice a patron make frequent trips to the ATM, interspersed with outpourings of elation and anguish, they will approach that person and talk with them about the risks of gambling. In addition to this use of trained human observers, many Canadian casinos use an automated system called iCare that detects problematic gambling behavior by tracking patrons with personal cards.

The problem with on-site centers stems from the clear conflict of interest. Casinos maximize profit by manipulating patrons. They are dark masters of psychology. For example, they use variable ratio reinforcement to keep people pumping quarters into slot-machines. They use spatial and temporal illusions to obscure the exits and the signals that it is getting late. Knowing how cunning casinos are, we are skeptical about whether casinos will offer counseling in good faith. Perhaps these centers will exist, but will be obscured by bad lighting, baroque scenery, more appealing diversions nearby, or other subtle trickery.

Governor Patrick’s proposal requires that addiction centers be run by independent groups. This at least makes it harder for them to be suborned by the casinos, but it does not assure that some obstacles won’t impair counselors. Other governors should wait and study this first example before inviting casinos into their own states. If it turns out that casinos do reliably and effectively pay for the problems that they create under Governor Patrick's plan, then perhaps the gambling industry's financial benefits will be able to offset the negative effects that have so many citizens concerned.

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