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Compulsive gambling funds off pace of new casinos

Monday - 5/6/2013, 6:28am  ET

FILE - In this May 13, 2008 file photo, one of the slot machine rooms at the new MGM Grand Hotel stands ready for the start of business at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn. The spread of casino gambling is reaping billions of dollars for industry and government coffers, but also is creating more compulsive gamblers. Advocates for treatment services point to gaps between the amount of money states receive and what they spend on compulsive gambling. In 2012, Connecticut's gambling industry generated almost $659 million in state revenue, while problem gambling services received $1.9 million. (AP Photo/Bob Child, File)

AP Business Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Tom Leksan lost nearly everything when gambling became an addiction with easy access to casinos.

Once an Ohio lawyer, Leksan lost his job and marriage because of gambling, specifically blackjack. He had been gambling for years, he said, but did not become a problem gambler until he became hooked on riverboat casinos in nearby Indiana.

"I think the casinos thrive off the compulsive gambler," said Leksan, now a car salesman in northern California. "They pay lip service to treating problem gambling, but that's their bread and butter."

The unrelenting spread of casino gambling across America is reaping billions of dollars for the industry and government coffers but is also creating more compulsive gamblers. Addiction experts say the sums spent by states for treatment and counseling are too little to keep pace.

Even after the worst recession in decades and during a weak economic recovery, developers are building new casinos and adjoining attractions with the blessings of cash-hungry states. Ohio opened its first casinos last year, casino developers are vying for permission to build three casinos in Massachusetts, and New York City's new Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct racetrack is also shaking up casino gambling in the Northeast.

Advocates for an expansion of treatment services point to enormous gaps between the money states are taking in and what they are spending on compulsive gambling. For example, casinos and card rooms in Pennsylvania generated about $2.3 billion in revenue in 2010 and the state transferred $17.5 million in casino revenue into its Problem Gambling Treatment Fund between 2007 and last year.

Connecticut's casinos, off-track betting and the state lottery generated nearly $659 million in state revenue in 2012 while problem gambling services that include counseling, treatment and a toll-free phone number for gamblers received $1.9 million.

"Even as you see an expansion of gambling you're not seeing a level playing field in treatment," said Mark Vander Linden, president of the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators.

Linden's organization, in a 2010 report, found that 37 states were providing public funding for gambling programs -- at a combined total level of just over $58 million. Nevada alone reported casino and card room gambling revenue that year of $10.4 billion, according to Casino City's North American Gaming Almanac.

About 2.6 million gamblers characterized as pathological, or unable to resist the impulse to gamble, are estimated to need treatment each year, the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators says.

Problem gambling is defined as behavior that causes physical, psychological, social or job disruptions. It is progressively addictive as gamblers become preoccupied with betting and require more frequent bets with more money. It can be as mild as spending too much at a slot machine, card table or convenience store selling lottery tickets or taken to the extreme, compulsive gambling results in overwhelming debt, divorce and sometimes crime such as embezzlement to raise money to pay off gambling debts.

Ray Pineault, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, said Mohegan Sun and neighboring Foxwoods Resort Casino contribute plenty -- nearly $326 million last year as required by their agreement with the state -- but the state spends too little to treat problem gambling.

"I don't think the state does significant funding," he said.

Rep. Stephen Dargan, the House chairman of the Connecticut legislature's public safety committee, which oversees the two casinos, said finding money is always a struggle.

"There's only so many dollars out there," he said.

In addition, without an expansion in gambling in Connecticut and no Internet gambling, no one is clamoring for more funding. "Everything is pretty much status quo," he said.

Donald Weinbaum, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, where gambling has been legal for decades, said the state's Internet gambling law signed by Gov. Chris Christie in February will lead to a big boost in financing problem gambling programs. Each casino that wins state approval to operate Internet betting will be required to pay $250,000 a year.

It's the first time casinos are being forced to pitch in to help finance such services, he said, and will boost current funding of $850,000 a year for treatment, prevention, education and other services that has held steady for about three years.

Massachusetts state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a principal architect of legislation in 2011 allowing up to three resort casinos and a slot machine parlor, said gamblers from his state are spending money in casinos in neighboring states, leaving Massachusetts to treat problems related to their gambling troubles.

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