There was a time when, if you wanted to gamble legally, you had to travel to Atlantic City, or at least as far as Wheeling, W.Va. But if Gov. Ed Rendell's plan to legalize video poker in neighborhood businesses succeeds, gambling will be as easy as running to the corner bar for a beer. Which some say means it's a safe bet that more people will end up becoming addicted.
"Anytime you have an extension of gambling, you've got the potential for more people to develop a gambling problem," says Jim Pappas, president of the neutral Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania. Pappas' organization says there's already some evidence that the spike in gambling outlets is matched by a spike in gambling addiction.
In fact, the number of calls made to the CCG's gambling-addict hotline, 1-800-GAMBLER, has boomed in the past two years. Between March and December 2007, the call center received 966 calls. In 2008, the number grew to 4,557 -- nearly a five-fold increase. The state gaming-control board issued 11 licenses for slots casinos in December 2006, and between 2007 and the end of 2008, seven of the facilities opened, with four more on the way.
And Pappas says allowing video-poker machines at the local bar may make things even worse: "We haven't seen any legislation yet, but we are interested to see what the plans are to monitor those machines." Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed legalizing video poker in bars, restaurants and social clubs with the proceeds -- an estimated $550 million going toward tuition at state colleges. He says an estimated 18,000 establishments would be eligible to have up to five machines each.
In Pennsylvania, casino staff must be trained to spot problem gamblers. But if legal video poker machines are going to be widely distributed at bars and restaurants across the state, will bar owners be required to have the same training? And, if so, will it really make a difference anyway?
Bruce Barron, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based anti-gaming group No Dice Pennsylvania, notes that bartenders are already potentially liable if they serve more liquor to obviously drunk patrons. A similar standard should be used with the gaming industry, he says.
"Hold [machine operators] legally responsible if someone gambles way too much, causing them to lose their house, their families and their jobs," Barron says. "If they embezzle money from their employers to gamble in your casino, you should have to pay it back.
"If that happens, [those who operate slot and video poker machines] would quickly discover social responsibility."
Amy Christie, executive director for the Pennsylvania Tavern Association, says the potential addiction aspect of the proposal has been discussed, but nothing concrete has been decided because, as of yet, no formal bill has been introduced. But, she says, tavern owners are not strangers to responsibility.
"This is already one of the most highly regulated industries in the state," she says. "It's nothing new for tavern owners to have to be responsible for their patrons even when [patrons are] not responsible for themselves."
Under the state's gambling law, the state is responsible to provide and pay for treatment for anyone who believes they have a gambling problem. The state currently allocates $1.7 million to deal with problem gambling; under Rendell's proposed new budget, that would jump to $2.4 million next year.
In fact, at a recent stop in Pittsburgh to tout his slots-for-education plan, Rendell was asked if he was worried that creating more gambling opportunities would mean more gambling addicts.
"We now have a program in place, and if you're an addict you can get treatment for free," Rendell told reporters. "If that happened before, you were on your own."
Still, Rendell said, "[T]here is no evidence that slot machines lead to widespread gambling addiction."
Rendell's claim is bolstered by several organizations including the American Gaming Association and the "Public Sector Gaming Impact Study Commission" which claims: "In short, there is no solid basis for concluding that the wider legalization of gambling ... has caused a concomitant increase in pathological gambling."
However, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, in 1999, found, "the availability of a casino within 50 miles (versus 50 to 250 miles) is associated with about double the prevalence of problem and pathological gamblers."
"This plan is a huge expansion of gambling and it's a potential social calamity for families," says state Rep. Paul Clymer (R-Bucks), a longtime gambling opponent. "We're talking about putting legal video-poker machines in bars -- alcohol and gambling combined will be an extremely lethal mixture.
"Who's going to monitor that?"