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Problem gamblers can add selves to list banning them from casinos

| Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A list that allows addicted gamblers to ban themselves from Pennsylvania's casinos doesn't guarantee they won't try to play slots, officials say.

The self-exclusion list maintained by the state Office of Compulsive Gambling contains 627 people, whose photos are distributed to security guards at casinos. That's fewer people than when the list began with the opening of Pennsylvania's first casino in November 2006, because 36 names were removed after their expiration dates.

Gamblers who think they have a problem can sign up for one year, five years or for life. But some are caught violating the ban, and others try to get by wearing disguises.

"(The list) is not therapy," said Nanette Horner, director of the state Office of Compulsive Gambling. "It does require self-restraint."

With the Rivers Casino scheduled to open on the North Shore in August, at least one psychologist who works with addicted gamblers thinks the number of people seeking treatment will grow.

"I think once the casino opens in Pittsburgh, we'll be getting more calls and seeing more patients," said Janet Pisani, a psychologist at Gambling Treatment Associates in Sharpsburg.

Fifty percent of those who sign up do so for one year, but 30 percent choose a lifelong ban. Of those on the list, 51 percent are women, and 49 percent of the total are ages 45 to 64.

Casino operators say it's not fair to blame them for addicts' problems.

"Gaming is an adult entertainment choice no different than any other," Rivers Casino spokesman Dan Fee said. "We, the gaming industry, take (addiction) very seriously and are committed to helping that limited number of individuals who do develop a problem."

David La Torre, spokesman for The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, said the casino posts signs telling gamblers where they can find help.

"You really can't go anywhere in the casino without seeing an 800 number or a piece of literature to direct people to find the proper resources," he said.

Once on the self-exclusion list, violators can be charged with trespassing.

Horner said 51 people have been charged with violating their ban. Security guards caught most of them, by comparing photos to visitors, she said, but some were caught while performing a transaction such as cashing in winnings.

Some people have used disguises to attempt to bypass casino security, Horner said.

"The most common form of a disguise is wearing big, dark glasses and baseball caps tucked down over their face," she said.

If a person gets by security, any winnings are confiscated and they aren't reimbursed for their losses, she said.

Casinos combine to pay the state 0.1 percent of their revenue, or $1.5 million a year, whichever is greater, to assist in treating gambling addicts, said Stacy Kriedeman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health.

The state collected $3 million the past two years but spent just $163,000 on treatment programs, Kriedeman said. The rest will be used for actual treatment, and prevention and outreach programs, she said.

Addiction can be a real problem, said Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, a Washington-based organization.

"Research shows that the same part of the brain that gets excited while sitting in front of a slot machine is the same part of the brain that reacts when you take a hit of cocaine," he said. "The speed of the games, the amount of money you can wager" make slot machines addictive.

Additional Information:

Do not gamble

The self-exclusion list is open to anyone, regardless of state of residence. About a quarter of those who ban themselves have not been inside a Pennsylvania casino, according to the state Office of Compulsive Gambling.

People can sign up at any of the four Gaming Control Board offices -- in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Scranton and Conshohocken -- or at a casino.

Although a few people inquired about early removal from the list, no one has done so. Early removal costs $225. You must petition the gambling board, provide documentation about why you want to be removed, and possibly bring a professional to attest you are not an addict.

Twelve other states, including New Jersey, Nevada and West Virginia, have similar self-exclusion programs.

Source: Office of Compulsive Gambling

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