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State gambling board walks fine line on problem gamblers

| Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, 12:07 a.m.

The father with a car full of balloons misses his son's birthday party because he stops at the casino.

A man claims he doesn't have a gambling problem, he has a “money problem.”

They're characters from a gambling-awareness media blitz that resumed as Pennsylvania lawmakers consider expanding the state's gambling industry by adding keno games. Money for the campaign, which started two years ago, comes from the state's Compulsive and Problem Gambling Treatment Fund, to which all licensed gaming entities contribute a combined minimum of $2 million a year.

Richard McGarvey, the state Gaming Control Board's spokesman, acknowledged the conflict between spending on anti-gambling messages while considering expansion. But it's usually in the casinos' best interest not to encourage problem gamblers who might leave their kid in a car or steal from an employer to support their habit, he said.

“They'd much rather avoid problem gamblers and the problems that can come with them,” McGarvey said.

TV commercials, radio spots, billboards and bus shelter posters began appearing in November and are scheduled to continue through March in the regions surrounding casinos. Special ATM receipts at machines and ads at the top of gas pumps near casinos have information on how to get help with problem gambling.

The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates, based on state or regional studies, that about 2 million people nationwide are pathological gamblers. An additional 4 million to 6 million are considered problem gamblers.

Officials said studies suggest 2 percent to 3 percent of Pennsylvanians will experience a serious problem associated with gambling, including accumulating significant debt, experiencing family problems, losing a job or becoming involved in crime. It's not clear how many of those have sought treatment.

Gambling has become big business since the first casino opened in November 2006. Pennsylvania is second only to Nevada in casino revenue, and regulators say total tax revenue through June 2012 reached $6.2 billion.

In addition to adding keno games, the Gaming Control Board will hear a proposal for a casino license in Philadelphia at a public forum Feb. 12. In October, the Pennsylvania Harness Racing Commission approved a deal designed to help a proposed racetrack and casino called Valley View Downs open in Lawrence County.

The gambling board has other programs to help people with problems. As part of the licensing process, a casino has to develop a problem-gambling prevention plan, including training employees to recognize the signs and symptoms of addicts, McGarvey said.

The board also allows people to put their names on a statewide list indicating they should not be allowed in a casino. Violators can be arrested for trespassing. Since 2007, more than 4,000 people have signed up. Police have logged 730 violations.

Christine Cronkright, a spokeswoman in Gov. Tom Corbett's office, said calls to a gambling hot line increased 18 percent in the month the last media campaign was most active.

Tom Shaheen, vice president of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which helped to spearhead a movement in the 1990s against expanding gambling in the state, said he wasn't sure how effective the latest round of messages will be, but acknowledged them as a “good use” of government money.

“(Gambling's) a real problem that's affected families,” Shaheen said. “But by using a simple ad campaign to serve as a warning, like we do with cigarettes, I think it's worth doing.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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