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Massachusetts Casino Debate Includes Warnings That Students Face Chance of Gambling Addiction

Harrah’s Entertainment pitched a proposed Rhode Island casino to college students as a place “to have fun when they’re taking a break from studying.”

In Connecticut, home to two of the world’s largest resort casinos, a 21-minimum age limit doesn’t deter young people. And colleges in Missouri changed their health center intake forms to include a space for gambling issues, after counselors found the problem was prevalent but not being addressed.

As Massachusetts debates a proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to allow three full-scale casinos, professionals are warning that college students are more susceptible than others to gambling addictions, and that college administrations are not prepared to deal with the fallout.

“There is a steady flow of high school and college students that attempt to get into the casinos,” said Marvin Steinberg, head of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling.

Patrick’s plan would put poker, roulette, slot machines and the accompanying free drinks within a short drive from many of the state’s more than 100 college campuses. And if racetrack owners in Boston or Revere win a license, students at Harvard, Boston College, Northeastern University and other schools could ride Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trains to go gambling.

Harvard researchers peg the rate of college students with a severe gambling problem at 5 percent with another 7 percent considered “problem” gamblers. Both rates are about double the adult rates.

“By the time they get to college, most kids have already gambled,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, citing the lottery. “However, most have probably not had the opportunity to go to a casino with high stakes and access to credit. It would be exposing them to a new type of gambling.”

The governor estimates three resort casinos would generate $450 million in annual tax revenue, which he would spend on repairing roads and property tax credits for homeowners.

Casino gambling last year generated $57 billion in revenue, and Massachusetts is among just 14 states that still prohibit casinos and slot machines. Patrick acknowledged there will be side effects, such as addiction and child neglect, but says they are “manageable” through programs to be funded by casino tax revenue.

JudyAnn Bigby, the state’s secretary of health and human services, said the casinos will attract an upper-income crowd, not college kids.

“These are destination resort casinos,” she said. “It’s not designed to attract college students. My understanding of where the students gamble is on the Internet.”

Bigby added that casinos would train workers to identify problem gamblers, and casino operators would be prohibited from advertising to young people.

There would be one casino in each of three geographic regions western and southeastern Massachusetts, and the Boston metro area. One proposal would locate a casino in Palmer, which is about 20 miles south of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the largest undergraduate campus in the state.

Recent UMass graduate Brett Burdick supports Patrick’s plan for casinos and estimates he would go to gamble about once a month.

“I don’t think people are going to be skipping classes,” said Burdick, a regular online poker player who occasionally travels to casinos in Connecticut and Atlantic City. “I don’t think people are going to be suffering grade-wise just because a casino is 20 minutes away.”

Twenty-one is generally the minimum age for legal gambling, but University of Nevada Las Vegas researchers reported in 2005 that more than half of students under 21 claimed to have gambled in a casino and a “large number of those under 21 gave evidence suggestive of pathological gambling.”

When Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. and the Narragansett Indian tribe tried to win approval for a casino in Rhode Island last year, their local public relations team advertised for college students to work as organizers to register student voters for the casino campaign.

The ad said students should support the effort, saying: “The resort casino will be an amazing new place for Rhode Island college students to have fun when they’re taking a break from studying.”

Some have responded with efforts to prevent gambling addiction. Oregon, which has tribal casinos, offers grants to student groups to conduct gambling awareness campaigns.

The University of Missouri-Columbia oversees an awareness campaign at 12 public schools in Missouri, home to nearly a dozen riverboat casinos.

“This is a hidden addiction, something we weren’t addressing,” said Kristy Wanner, gambling prevention coordinator for the program. “An alcohol issue is easier to detect. They get into a fight, they get a DWI.”

Wanner said campus counseling centers can begin by adding a “gambling” checkoff box to intake forms that ask students to identify problems around substance abuse or depression. Some students report being $25,000 in debt from gambling, she said.

Jim Wuelfing, prevention director at the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, said their research shows that high schools and colleges don’t address gambling in student handbooks.

The council two years ago invited every college and university in Massachusetts to attend an information session. Only two-dozen showed up and just four accepted the council’s offer of on-campus training in policy development and awareness. The offer was made again this year, and seven schools requested training.

“My concern is if it comes,” Wuelfing said of casino gambling, “that the state be prepared for prevention, intervention and treatment of problem gambling.”

–Associated Press

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