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More college students hooked on gambling

| Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Dr. John Massella, who leads a weekly group that touches on impulse gambling problems at California University of Pennsylvania, photographed at his office on Friday, November 16, 2012. Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review

Just weeks before Christmas 2005, Greg Hogan Jr. — president of his college class, gifted cello player and son of a respected minister — slipped a note to a terrified Lehigh County bank teller warning that he had a gun and demanding all her money.

The unlikeliest of bank robbers, he couldn't imagine being caught, he said later.

He was calm, cool and so matter-of-fact that he left the bank, hung out with friends, munched on pizza and sat through a screening of the “Chronicles of Narnia” as if nothing had happened.

The reality came later that day when police slapped handcuffs on him as he was about to perform with his college orchestra.

For Hogan, it was the end of a tortured journey from friendly dorm room poker games with buddies to the life of a compulsive gambler so addicted to online gambling that he sometimes spent more than 12 hours a day in front of his computer placing wagers.

About 6 percent of college students in the United States have serious gambling problems, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. It's a number experts say is growing as more opportunities become available to gamble, legally or illegally.

Nationally, about 75 percent of college students gambled last year and 18 percent admitted they did so at least weekly, according to the council's partner,

The most popular gambling activity with those students was playing the lottery (41 percent), followed by card games (38 percent) and sports betting (23 percent).

Dr. John Massella, who runs a California University of Pennsylvania addiction program called Cal Clean and Sober, said the temptation is heightened in areas where casino gambling is readily available.

Patrons at the state's 11 casinos must be 21, but anyone 18 and older can play the lottery.

In Pennsylvania, “there's a lot of gambling; there's no shortage of it,” said Dan Romer, director of health communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

The freedom that comes with being away from home and the need to fit in with peers often leads students to dabble in gambling, Romer said.

“Young people, they're not working, they don't have families to support, they have time (to gamble),” he said.

That's how it started for Joe Turbessi, a University of Connecticut graduate who tours the country talking about his battle with compulsive gambling.

For him, an occasional $5-a-hand poker game with friends led to the time he passed out in his Jeep in a casino garage after gambling all night. When he awoke the next morning, he pulled receipts from his pockets and realized he'd lost $2,200.

“You're growing up and experiencing all these things,” he said. “It sucked me in.”

Colleges boost efforts

College officials are increasing their efforts to deal with problem gambling.

Massella started a group at his school for students battling the addiction.

Butler County's Human Services Drug and Alcohol branch partnered with Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania to assess the status of gambling on the state-owned campus, which is an easy drive from casinos in Erie and Pittsburgh.

They will identify where problems exist and develop resources for students and parents, prevention specialist Beth Ehrenfried-Neveux said.

At Penn State University, “we know the problem is out there and more problematic as a result of the accessibility of online gaming,” spokeswoman Lisa Powers said. She said Penn State's counseling center works individually with students but it's been difficult to “pull addictive gamblers out of the woodwork unless they are experiencing other issues.”

Compared with non-gambling students, those who gambled in the past year had higher rates of binge drinking, smoking marijuana or cigarettes, and using illicit drugs and engaging in unsafe sex after drinking, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

When illegal gambling is discovered on the Penn State campus, administrators have sanctions in place to deal with offenders, Powers said.

‘The invisible disease'

But some parents and experts say colleges have not done enough to recognize problem gambling, claiming programs to address drug and alcohol abuse overshadow it.

Although most colleges have alcohol policies, only 22 percent have gambling policies, according to the national gambling council.

“Most colleges really aren't up to speed in terms of what's going on in problem gambling,” said J. Michael Faragher, director of the University of Denver's Problem Gambling and Research Center.

Gambling addiction is twice as common among young or college-aged people as among older adults, he said. The National Council on Problem Gambling says 1 percent of adults are pathological gamblers, with 2 percent to 3 percent more considered problem gamblers.

Experts estimate as many as 500,000 college students struggle with compulsive gambling.

“Gambling is known as the invisible disease,” Faragher said. “It's a less obvious addiction. You don't have fights or needle marks. People suffering are able to masquerade that everything is fine even though inside they may be on the verge of suicide.”

“Playing cards is nothing new,” said Christine Reilly, senior research director for the National Center for Responsible Gambling. “I saw newspaper clips from the 1900s that Yale students were playing poker too much. We need to recognize that they do it. It's not a risk-free activity.”

Reilly was part of a national task force that set up recommendations for colleges across the country, including raising awareness of gambling disorders and enabling addicted students to complete their educations.

From his Akron, Ohio-area church, Hogan's father, also named Greg, said during a recent interview that his son completed a 22-month prison sentence for robbing the bank.

Since then, the younger Hogan earned a master's degree in psychology at a school his father would not disclose. He'll remain on probation for four years.

Although his son's life is back on track, Greg Hogan Sr. wishes someone would have helped him before his desperation took over.

Hogan said he tried to stop his son's gambling when charges to an online poker website appeared on a joint bank account. He tried counseling for his son, set up a computer program to block poker websites and even called the university seeking help.

But by that point the addiction had consumed the younger Hogan. He would use library computers to access poker sites, and he anxiously searched for a way to get out from under his mounting debt without his parents knowing.

School officials told his father that unless Greg was hurting himself or others, campus security could only walk by his room to check on him.

“There were a lot of forces beyond my control and very little cooperation to help my son when he was in need of help,” Hogan said.

Amanda Dolasinski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6220 or

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