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Rod Smith

Forum Focuses on Problem Gambling

15 March 2004

SOUTHERN NEVADA -- Compulsive and pathological gambling are serious problems in Southern Nevada, and they are worsening for both the community and the afflicted individuals.

That was the message Friday at a Southern Nevada forum wrapping up National Problem Gambling Awareness Week.

The good news is that there are programs available to those who need treatment, Nevada Council on Problem Gambling Executive Director Carol O'Hare said.

Estimates of the number of problem gamblers in Las Vegas range from 46,000 to 138,000, depending on the method used in different studies, O'Hare said.

And estimates of the annual cost to the community range from $560 to $52,000 for each individual with a treatable disorder, depending on methods used for making the estimates, according to a new study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies.

The problem in Southern Nevada is worsening because of rapid population growth, Veterans Administration Psychology Department Chairwoman Rena Nora said.

Because of the prevalence of casinos, Las Vegas tends to attract newcomers who have a propensity to gamble and who are vulnerable to the affliction, she said.

O'Hare said that the incidence of problem gambling is twice as high in Southern Nevada as it is in any other community where impact studies have been conducted.

Nora said the widespread availability of casinos compounded the problem.

"Anytime you increase access or availability to whatever it is that is addicting, you increase the number of vulnerable people who are at risk," Nora said. "Gambling numbers are not as high as alcohol or drug use, but we call it low incidence, high impact."

In addition, the time it takes for patients to slide from casual gambling into problem gambling seems to be shrinking, based on clinical experience here, from what was about 10 years to only two years, she said.

One problem gambler explained outside the forum that for the first couple of years he lived here and gambled, he had no problem. Then, something happened, and he said he crossed an invisible line.

He said he was in and out of treatment programs, each of which seemed to work for a while, then he would go back to heavy gambling. O'Hare, Nora and University of Nevada, Las Vegas counseling professor Larry Ashley agreed funding for treatment is the biggest need facing the community.

Although treatment is available and the medical community is becoming more aware of patients' need for treatment, there are few treatment programs in Southern Nevada, Nora said.

However, Ashley explained that Las Vegas is ahead of the curve in treatment programs because of "cutting-edge" education programs at UNLV at both the undergraduate and graduate level that are preparing professional therapists competent in the specific field of compulsive and pathological gambling.

"We have the foundation academically now, and I think we're the envy of the country, even Harvard. We're the first university to prepare professionally trained therapists in the field," he said.

The goal at UNLV is to expand the training programs to the doctorate and medical school levels, Ashley said.

O'Hare said the goal of her industry-supported, nonprofit organization is to increase community awareness, provide education and advocate quality treatment.

"The most significant areas where we are lacking is treatment. We've had bills before the Legislature, but have yet to get any commitment of funds. That's the next big hurdle: getting funding for treatment," she said.

O'Hare, who pointed out the afflicted population includes people likely to be least able to afford treatment, said studies show the prevalence of problem gambling declines when states fund treatment programs.

She also said the council, which last year launched an awareness campaign with United Way of Southern Nevada, is conducting a similar campaign with the United Way in the Reno area.

People who think they have a gambling problem or may know others who are problem gamblers can call (800) 522-4700. Last year, some 2,300 people called that number seeking help.