Jul 30, 2014

Helping NJ's Compulsive Gamblers Get the Treatment They Need

Gambling pumps billions into the state economy, almost none of it goes to help those struggling with their addiction.

Helping NJ's Compulsive Gamblers Get the Treatment They Need

 At age 47, after stealing some $80,000 from her employer to support a secret $100-a-day lottery habit, Elaine wound up on the street -- her husband threw her out of the house -- and eventually in jail for five months.

“I ended up in hell.”

It has been 18 years since Elaine placed a bet. Divorced, she found love with another recovering gambler, has the love and support of her children, and makes a monthly restitution payment to her former employer, which she calls “a small mortgage without the house.” She works at the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey and, among her duties, counsels those who call its 1-800-GAMBLER helpline seeking assistance with their own addiction.

Elaine, who asked that her last name not be used to spare her family any embarrassment, said she is not against gambling, but that the council “needs support so we can help people who need it get treatment.”

Her boss, Donald Weinbaum, said the state gambling council has been officially neutral on a flurry of recent initiatives to boost gambling opportunities, pushed by lawmakers or Gov. Chris Christie, as ways to pump more revenue into the state budget.

But he has been arguing for more funding for problem gambling services in a state that  lags behind most others in its support for those who struggle with an addiction to one or more forms of betting, much of which is state-sponsored, particularly because he suspects that more lottery games, easier casino wagers, and sports betting will lead to more compulsive gamblers.

“There is a significant need in the state and we do not have a way to address it,” said Weinbaum, executive director of the compulsive gambling council. “What is really the sticking point is the level of funding available for problem gambling.”

In testifying twice before the Assembly Budget Committee on the Christie administration’s effort to partially privatize the New Jersey Lottery, Weinbaum has noted that virtually every other state uses more money from its lottery to fund programs to help problem gamblers than New Jersey does. The lottery gives $10,000 to the council – technically a membership fee -- for its programs each year.

“We compare rather poorly” to other states, he said.

New Jersey’s overall commitment to those with a gambling addiction is not much better. New Jersey tied for 23rd out of 38 states for the amount spent per capita on services for problem gamblers, according to the  2010 National Survey of Publicly Funded Problem Gambling Services conducted for the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators. And 17 of the states gave more in total to compulsive gambling programs than New Jersey’s $860,000, including the $10,000 from the lottery. California spent the most -- $8.7 million – but smaller states like Indiana provided $5.5 million and Delaware, whose population is one-tenth that of New Jersey, committed $1 million, according to the survey.

“New Jersey was kind of a pioneer in this effort,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “But other states have now gone far beyond that. New Jersey is no longer a leader.”

He said that in the 1970s, after New Jersey legalized gambling in Atlantic City, the state “really set the standard” for regulations preventing underage gambling and for providing services for problem gamblers, something Nevada did not do until decades later. But today other states invest more in trying to help those with a gambling addiction.

“I can’t remember the last time New Jersey funded a prevalence study,” White said.

Similarly, he continued, the state does not have a comprehensive, statewide gambling prevention curriculum in elementary or middle school, and while it does fund outpatient treatment services, there are not a lot of programs.

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