In the three years since Oklahomans approved a state lottery and expanded casino gambling options, the number of Gamblers Anonymous meetings statewide has nearly doubled.
However, the current number of meetings — 29 a week — suggests that a microscopic fraction of problem and compulsive gamblers are seeking help.
That theory is supported by the total number of people — 145 — who sought free treatment last year through programs funded by the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
A lack of advertising about the programs is one reason, experts say.
The state receives $750,000 a year from its share of lottery and casino revenues. That money is earmarked for treatment and education, leaving little for advertising its services.
That isn’t the only reason, however.
“There seems to be an unwillingness on the part of people with a gambling addiction problem to seek any type of help,” said Mark Bonney, a bankruptcy trustee who sees four or five cases a month caused by excessive gambling.
National studies suggest that three in every 100 adults is a problem or compulsive gambler. In Oklahoma, that equates to 75,000 people.
However, the incidence statistically doubles within 50 miles of a casino. The vast majority of Oklahoma’s population lives within 50 miles of a casino, so more than 3 percent of Oklahomans may have a gambling problem.
Rod K., a recovering problem gambler in the Oklahoma City area, would go months or even years at a time without gambling until he moved to Oklahoma a decade ago.
His problem developed slowly when he resumed gambling on electronic machines at casinos or convenience stores. He said it relieved marital and job stress.
“I was addicted, because I didn’t know what was causing me to gamble. ... I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t know why,” said Rod, who spoke on condition that his last name be withheld.
Rod, 57, is self-employed in the construction industry. He figures he lost $30,000 to $40,000 over three decades of gambling.
He was lucky. Unlike many problem and pathological gamblers, Rod never filed bankruptcy and said he didn’t commit crimes to finance his habit.
Related bankruptcies on rise
Bonney, the bankruptcy trustee, told The Oklahoman in 2005 that gambling addiction was responsible for 10 percent of the Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases in eastern Oklahoma.
Now, the number is closer to 15 percent, Bonney said, with gambling a contributing factor in another 5 percent.
One possible explanation: The earlier figure came before the sale of Oklahoma’s first lottery ticket and before casinos fully installed faster slot machines and poker tables made possible by a statewide vote in late 2004.
“Most of the people I see are making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, and they’re gambling about $10,000 a year,” Bonney said.
He gleans those figures from bank statements, which reflect cash withdrawals from ATMs inside casinos.
Because Bonney is allowed by law to review a filer’s bank records for three to five years after a bankruptcy case opens, he usually can tell whether someone continues gambling after receiving bankruptcy protection.
He recalls one specific couple’s bankruptcy caused mainly by the wife’s gambling.
“Everybody tried to get her to seek help,” Bonney said.
Instead, the wife, a nurse, continued gambling $500 to $1,000 a month while the bankruptcy case was active. Her husband divorced her after more than 20 years of marriage, Bonney said.
Addiction ‘never goes away’
Rod succeeded in hiding his problem from his wife until last year, when his wife found a mailer from a casino located near Norman. The casino obtained Rod’s address, obtained when Rod filled out a player’s club card form.
Rod’s marriage subsequently crumbled, and his adult daughter helped him find help.
He pays $5 per session for counseling at A Chance to Change in Oklahoma City. The state pays the rest.
Counseling helped him avoid the machines that used to make him drop $30 or more when he’d stop in a store for a soft drink.
“Now, I'm not drawn to them. The triggers that I do have are still there, but I've learned how to deal with them,” Rod said.
“It's just like alcoholism. It's one day at a time, and it never goes away,” he said.
Gambling addiction — by the numbers
75,000 — Estimated number of problem and compulsive gamblers in Oklahoma. This equates to three out of every 100 adults.
50 miles — Proximity to a casino that doubles the incidence rate of problem and compulsive gambling.
Nearly 100 — Estimated number of tribal gambling locations in Oklahoma.
57,000 — Estimated number of slot machines in Oklahoma.
$2 billion — Revenue reported by Oklahoma’s tribal casinos in 2007.
$750,000 — State’s share from lottery and casino proceeds set aside for problem gambling treatment and education.
2,032 — Number of lottery retailers in Oklahoma.
80 percent — Percentage of adults who gambled in the past year, according to one national survey.
15 percent — Percentage in national surveys who gambled in the last week.
22 percent — Percentage of Oklahoma teens who admitted gambling at a casino by their senior year of high school, according to a 2006 survey.
50 percent — According to studies, the percentage of Gamblers Anonymous participants who reported stealing to finance gambling.
$6.7 billion — The estimated national social cost resulting from bankruptcy, divorce, job loss and criminal charges associated with problem gambling in 2007.
16 — Number of weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Oklahoma in 2005.
29 — Number of weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Oklahoma in 2008.
Source: Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse
State-funded problem gambling hot line, staffed 24 hours a day: (800) 522-4700. The state’s Web link for problem gambling information: www.odmhsas.org/subab.htm