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Gambling At an Early Age

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For experts on compulsive gambling, he is also an illustration of a problem they say has escaped the attention of educators and policymakers: the widespread participation by young people in America's growing and heavily advertised legal gambling industry.

Spurred by an emerging body of research suggesting that young people may gamble more readily than adults-- and that many may already exhibit the traits of problem or pathological gamblers--Minnesota and Iowa are developing the first state initiatives to specifically address the problem at the elementary and secondary school levels.

Both programs are being paid for out of state lottery revenues, and both are expected to generate new research on youth-gambling patterns as well as preventive education programs.

"I would hope at some point that we would have a curriculum content similar to that we now have for drug, alcohol, and smoking education,'' says Alan Mathiason, project director of the compulsive-gambling treatment program of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Most states have laws that limit participation in legalized gambling activities to those 18 years old and older; in New Jersey, the legal age has been raised to 21 for casinos, to coincide with state liquor laws.

When questioned about the Minnesota and Iowa youth-gambling education initiatives, officials at national education organizations say the measures address an issue few people have even raised.

"If [compulsive teen gambling] is a problem, it certainly is a hidden problem,'' says Carolyn Cobb, chairman of the children's services committee for the National Association of School Psychologists. "I can't think of a single person in our organization who is working with it.''

Although research into teen gambling is still very much in its infancy, several studies conducted over the past decade indicate that young people may be heavily involved--both as casual wagerers in sports pools and card games, and in organized legal and illegal activities such as lotteries, casinos, and parimutuel betting.

The most recent available data from the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, for example, indicate that Atlantic City's 12 casinos turned away 200,000 minors from their doors in 1987 and escorted another 35,000 off the casino floor.

When Marvin Steinberg, president of Connecticut's Council on Compulsive Gambling and a consultant to the state department of mental health, surveyed 600 students in three high schools in the state last year, he found that 85 percent had gambled for money. Of these, 42 percent had gambled on school grounds, 24 percent had cut classes or been absent to gamble, and 46 percent had purchased their own lottery tickets.

Studies of two Los Angeles-area high schools conducted by Durand Jacobs, a contributing editor of The Journal of Gambling Behavior and chief of psychology services at Pettis Memorial Veterans Hospital in Loma Linda, Calif., indicated that teen gambling for money increased by at least 50 percent after the California lottery went into effect in 1986. The studies were conducted in 1985 and 1987.

In an analysis of findings from five surveys conducted between 1984 and 1988, which included 2,700 teenagers in 14 high schools in four states, Jacobs found that 45 percent of the young people had gambled in the previous year. Forty-five percent had bet on cards, 43 percent on the state lottery, 34 percent on games of skill, and 30 percent on sporting events. Of those who gambled, 36 percent said they had begun by the age of 11, 80 percent by age 15. Twenty percent said they gambled "moderate to heavy'' amounts, and 13 percent reported having committed illegal acts to get money to pay debts.

Moreover, 4 to 6 percent of the young gamblers met the criteria for probable pathological gamblers, Jacobs said, compared with 1.4 percent of the adult population in similar studies of adult gamblers.

But compulsive-gambling experts concerned about underage betting say they have gotten a cold reception from most educators and state officials, especially when they have broached the subject of monitoring youth involvement in state lotteries, many of which earmark portions of their revenues for education.

"The education people in this country still don't want to admit that there are drugs and alcohol in the schools, and they surely don't want to admit that there's a compulsive-gambling problem,'' says Arnie Wexler, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.

Henry Lesieur, who has studied compulsive gambling as an associate professor of sociology at St. John's University in New York City, says that "part of the problem is that legislatures want to get their money from the lottery, or the race track, or whatever it is, and they don't want to hear about the adverse consequences.'' Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia now have lotteries.

A local TV station in Hartford, Conn., recently found out just how easy it is for minors to buy lottery tickets and participate in other forms of gambling. WFSB-TV recruited five youngsters aged 12 to 17 to purchase lottery tickets in variety stores throughout the state. Twenty of 21 stores sold tickets to at least one of the underaged buyers, according to Jeffrey Cole, an investigative reporter for the station. The only child turned down was a 12-year-old, who still managed to buy tickets in four out of five attempts.

Two of the 17-year-olds recruited by the station were able to enter a dog track, a jai alai arena, and a "teletrack'' betting station and place at least three bets in each facility without being turned down or carded.

Meanwhile, Harrah's Atlantic City casino, stung by the fines, lawsuits, and bad publicity that have resulted from young people being on its premises, has launched a public awareness campaign called Project 21, aimed at keeping players under the legal age of 21 off the casino floor. Casino officials have offered to speak at schools and plan to discourage underage gambling in their advertisements.

"As we began to examine this problem, one of the things that became most clear was that there is an educational vacuum that must be filled,'' says James Butler Jr., vice president and general counsel for the casino. "We believe that this is not just a Harrah's problem, but is indeed an industry problem and a societal problem.''

--Peter Schmidt, Education Week

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