Wyomingites for a Better Economy Today and Tomorrow
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 Gambling Today Is Child's Play

By ROBIN STANSBURY The Hartford Courant, March 9, 1999

When parents of a West Hartford middle school student caught their son stealing $20, their thoughts immediately turned to drugs. But this youngster - just 12 years old - was stealing from his own home to keep up with a different addiction. Gambling.

"He'd been betting on basketball games at school,'' said Marc Bassos, town police officer who brought the youngster into his office for a lecture earlier this month. ``It was $5 a game, and he owed $20. It wasn't a lot, but this is the beginning for a kid who gets involved at this level - and just like drugs, it will lead to other types of gambling and possibly future [gambling] addictions.''

Youth gambling - called by some the ``new teenage addiction'' - is a fairly recent phenomenon, born from the legalization of many forms of gambling in Connecticut and across the nation. Aided by wide public support for gaming, such as multimillion-dollar lottery jackpots and Indian reservation casinos, more and more adolescents are placing bets on everything from professional basketball teams to local high school sporting matches, playing small poker games and scratching off illegally obtained lottery tickets.

``This is the first generation of kids who are going to be exposed to widespread, legalized gambling,'' said Randy Stinchfield, a clinical psychologist at the University of Minnesota who has spent the past 10 years studying teenage gambling. ``This is also the first generation to grow up with a kind of general social approval of gambling. Most kids realize that gambling is a losing endeavor. But there is a minority that think they can win, and that's the group we're concerned about.'' While much is known about teenagers' struggles with drugs and alcohol, adolescent gambling is not generally recognized as problematic by police, parents or educators, in spite of studies that show young problem gamblers are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, have sex or commit crimes, than their non-gambling peers.

Educational programs - like a police-sponsored series set to debut in West Hartford high schools this fall - are rare. And treatment for gambling addictions is often aimed solely at adults. At the same time, public support for gaming is growing. Only two states - Utah and Hawaii - still prohibit gambling of any kind. Advertisements are common. Gambling over the Internet is a burgeoning business. The nation's gambling capital, Las Vegas, long a play land for adults, now markets itself as a family vacation destination with theme casinos. And the adult public has generally embraced the practice, including ferocious betting on the annual NCAA basketball tournament, which begins this week.

In the most extreme cases, young gamblers are losing hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars a year to bookies, and committing crimes like burglary and even prostitution to support their habits.

``We have a lot of work to do because, to some extent, concern about teenage gambling is at the same place concern over teen drinking was in the early 1960s, which was people pretty much denied it was happening or denied it was a problem,'' said Chris Armentano, director of the Compulsive Gambling Treatment Program at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown.

Nationwide studies on underage gambling, including a 1997 study from Harvard University, estimate that up to 10 percent of adolescents are problem gamblers, more than twice the 3.8 percent rate for adults. Harvard concluded that problem gambling is a ``robust phenomenon'' and ``significantly more prevalent among young people than among the general adult population.''

In Connecticut, a 1996 study by the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling - which surveyed almost 4,000 students in five local high schools - shows:
* 87 percent of teens gambled for money at some time.
* About 20 percent of those surveyed were identified as problem gamblers or at-risk for problem gambling.
*14 percent of problem gamblers placed bets on school grounds on a daily basis; another 12 percent did so on a weekly basis.
*20 percent of young problem gamblers bet more than $200 at one time.

In 1993, police broke up a betting ring at Daniel Hand High School in Madison after one student told police he had lost $20,000 to a 17-year- old student bookie. At about the same time, high school betting rings were also found in Rocky Hill, North Haven and Middletown.

In other parts of the country, a handful of high school students in a Minnesota suburb were arrested in 1998 after police said they stole belongings from unoccupied vacation homes. The youths told police they took the items to support their gambling habits. In January this year, a New Jersey casino was fined $30,000 after two teens - 17 and 18 years old - walked into the Bally's Park Place casino floor in 1997 and began playing slot machines.

Anti-gaming experts are most concerned about youngsters like 15- year-old Kyle Quinn, a Berlin High School student who says he gambles occasionally, mostly placing small bets on the Super Bowl with his friends, or sitting down for all-night blackjack matches.

``It's just fun and a chance to make some money,'' Kyle said. ``It's certainly not a habit. And I wouldn't let it get out of hand.''

But it's this seemingly harmless betting that can often lead to a lifelong addiction, experts say. While many adolescents will simply experiment with gambling and outgrow the habit, a percentage of youngsters will become adult compulsive gamblers.

That's just what happened to Brett, who lives in north central Connecticut and began gambling when an acquaintance at his school ``said he knew someone who took money on games.'' That was three years ago. He was 15. Brett, who spoke on condition that he not be fully identified, said he bet $25 to $50 almost every day on basketball games, and every Sunday on football, until he wound up $700 in debt. His dad agreed to pay his bookies if he got help. But the addiction still gripped the teen.

``I told myself enough was enough,'' said Brett, now 18. ``Then five minutes later I was on the phone making another bet. In the beginning you win more than you lose. But then you begin to lose more than you win.'' Brett said he was attracted by the excitement ``and the high I got out of winning.'' He joined Gamblers Anonymous in the past month.