What Does It Say? What Does It Mean?
The National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC) Final Report, issued on June 18, 1999, provided the first comprehensive assessment of gambling’s effects on the United States in 23 years. The NGISC raised a plethora of concerns about the negative impacts of gambling that have arisen in the more than two decades since the first federal gambling commission completed its work.
The nine-member Commission faced numerous obstacles in its work, the foremost being a united and relentless effort on the part of the gambling industry and its political allies to sabotage the Commission’s work. In fact, the gambling industry succeeded in placing three members of the Nevada casino industry on the Commission. Another member was appointed to represent Native American gambling interests.
In spite of this, the Commission’s final report paints a dark-and often devastating-portrait of the effects of widespread legalized gambling on America’s families and communities. The report received unanimous support from all nine commissioners. Given the composition of the commission, its findings must be taken as the bare minimum regarding the harms and ills associated with legalized gambling. In actuality, the damages attributable to casinos and other forms of state-sanctioned wagering may be far greater even than those outlined in the NGISC’s work. Commissioners acknowledged as much, frequently noting the dearth of research regarding the social implications of this activity and calling on federal, state, and tribal governments, as well as academia and other institutions, to begin a much more thorough assessment to measure gambling’s true toll.
The following highlights contain excerpts from key sections of the NGISC’s final report. Language in italics is excerpted directly from the report. Text in bold letters is so noted to highlight key statements or conclusions.
A copy of the entire report may be obtained through the Internet at http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/ngisc/index.html.
Gambling Addiction: A Growth Industry
The NGISC report clearly states that gambling addiction is increasing in the United States as gambling expands. Further, the Commission anticipates continued increases in the future. The report cites numerous pieces of evidence linking the increased availability of gambling with the growth in the numbers of people victimized by a gambling addiction.
“As the opportunities for gambling become more commonplace, it appears likely that the number of people who will develop gambling problems also will increase.” (p. 4-19)
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“NORC (The National Opinion Research Center) examined the nearby presence of gambling facilities as a contributing factor in the incidence of problem and pathological gambling in the general population. In examining combined data from its telephone and patron surveys, NORC found that the presence of a gambling facility within 50 miles roughly doubles the prevalence of problem and pathological gamblers…. “Seven of the nine communities that NORC investigated reported that the number of problem and pathological gamblers increased after the introduction of nearby casino gambling.
“NRC’s (the National Research Council’s) review of multiple prevalence surveys over time concluded that ‘[S]ome of the greatest increases in the number of problem and pathological gamblers shown in these repeated surveys came over periods of expanded gambling opportunities in the states studied.’
“An examination of a number of surveys by Dr. Rachel Volberg concluded that states that introduced gambling had higher rates of problem and pathological gambling. The relationship between expanded gambling opportunities and increased gambling behaviors was highlighted in the personal testimony received by the Commission. Ed Looney, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, testified that the national helpline operated by his organization received significant increases in calls from locations where gambling had been expanded.” (p. 4-4)
How Many Are There?
The Commission reported on a wide range of estimates of the number of Americans with a significant gambling problem. Two key studies indicated that between 15 and 20 million Americans are displaying some signs of a gambling addiction. Further, the Commission emphasized that estimates of the number of problem and pathological gamblers may be significantly understated.
“For millions of Americans, problem and pathological gambling is a serious consequence of legal and illegal gambling. Part of our challenge has been to pin down the exact number of individuals suffering from these disorders. Virtually every study varies in these estimations. For example, a Harvard University meta-analysis concluded that approximately 1.6 percent, or 3.2 million, of the American adult population are pathological gamblers. The combined rate of problem and pathological gambling in 17 states where surveys have been conducted ranges from 1.7 to 7.3 percent. In Oregon, the lifetime prevalence of problem and pathological gambling is 4.9 percent. Recent studies in Mississippi and Louisiana indicate that 7 percent of adults in these states have been classified as problem or pathological gamblers.
“The two principal studies sponsored by this Commission found that the prevalence of problem and pathological gambling in America is troubling. NRC estimates that, in a given year, approximately 1.8 million adults in the United States are pathological gamblers. NORC found that approximately 2.5 million adults are pathological gamblers. Another three million of the adult population are problem gamblers. Over 15 million Americans were identified as at-risk gamblers.” (pp. 7-19, 7-20)
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“In its 1997 meta-analysis of literature on problem and pathological gambling prevalence, the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions, using ‘past year’ measures, estimated at that time that there were 7.5 million American adult problem and pathological gamblers (5.3 million problem and 2.2 million pathological). The study also estimated there were 7.9 million American adolescent problem and pathological gamblers (5.7 million problem and 2.2 million pathological).” (p. 4-1)
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“Despite the lack of basic research and consensus among scholars, the Commission is unanimous in its belief that the incidence of problem and pathological gambling is of sufficient severity to warrant immediate and enhanced attention on the part of public officials and others in the private and non-profit sectors. The Commission strongly urges those in positions of responsibility to move aggressively to reduce the occurrence of this malady in the general population and to alleviate the suffering of those afflicted.” (p. 4-3)
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“It is possible that the numbers from the NRC and NORC studies may understate the extent of the problem. Player concealment or misrepresentation of information and the reliance of surveyors on telephone contact alone may cause important information on problem or pathological gamblers to be missed. For example, among pathological gamblers, a common characteristic-in fact, one of the DSM-IV criteria-is concealing the extent of their gambling. Data in the NORC survey support the theory that even non-problem gamblers tend to understate their negative experiences related to gambling. And, in fact, survey respondents greatly exaggerated their wins and underreported their losses. Similarly, respondents were five times more likely to report that their spouse’s gambling contributed to a prior divorce than to admit that their own gambling was a factor. Thus, the actual prevalence rates may be significantly higher than those reported. Additional research is needed to verify the full scope of problem and pathological gambling.” (p. 4-9)
A Highly Addictive Activity
The gambling industry has attempted to downplay the magnitude of gambling addiction in this country by stating that the vast majority of Americans display no visible signs of a gambling addiction. However, the Commission’s findings portray gambling as a highly addictive activity. In addition to concerns about underreporting, the reality is that a significant number of Americans do not gamble, and thus are at no risk for gambling addiction. NORC’s survey found that 37% of American adults did not place a bet in the past year (NORC, p. 25). The extreme rates of gambling addiction among casino employees provides further evidence of the link between exposure to gambling environments and the development of severe gambling problems.
“The incidence of problem and pathological gambling among regular gamblers appears to be much higher than in the general population. In NORC’s survey of 530 patrons at gambling facilities, more than 13 percent met the lifetime criteria for pathological or problem gambling, while another 18 percent were classified as ‘at risk’ for developing severe gambling problems.” (pp. 4-5, 4-9)
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“The NRC also stated that between 3 and 7 percent of those who have gambled in the past year reported some symptoms of problem or pathological gambling.” (p. 4-5)
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“The Commission heard testimony that the prevalence of pathological gambling behavior may be higher among gambling industry employees than in the general population and Dr. Robert Hunter, a specialist in pathological gambling treatment, has estimated that 15 percent of gambling industry employees have a gambling problem.” (p. 4-11)
The Commission found that gambling addiction is more prevalent among various ethnic groups, the poor, and youth, as will be addressed in greater depth later.
“Both [the NRC and NORC] studies found that pathological, problem, and at-risk gambling was proportionally higher among African Americans than other ethnic groups. Although little research has been conducted on gambling problems among Native American populations, the few studies that have been done indicate that Native Americans may be at increased risk for problem and pathological gambling.” (p. 4-11)
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“NORC reported that pathological gambling occurs less frequently among individuals over age 65, among college graduates, and in households with incomes over $100,000 per year. NRC concluded that pathological gambling is found proportionately more often among the young, less educated, and poor.” (p. 4-11)
A Devastating Addiction
The NGISC report underscores the depth of pain and misery that accompanies a gambling problem. The Commission stated repeatedly that the personal, familial and societal devastation resultant from a gambling addiction is wide-ranging and profound.
“[According to the National Research Council] pathological gamblers ‘engage in destructive behaviors: they commit crimes, they run up large debts, they damage relationships with family and friends, and they kill themselves. With the increased availability of gambling and new gambling technologies, pathological gambling has the potential to become even more widespread.'” (p. 4-1)
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“Problem or pathological gambling can affect the life of the gambler and others in varied and profound ways. The NRC study stated that ‘although the research in this area is sparse, it suggests that the magnitude and extent of personal consequences on the pathological gambler and his or her family may be severe.’ That report notes that many families of pathological gamblers suffer from a variety of financial, physical, and emotional problems, including divorce, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and a range of problems stemming from the severe financial hardship that commonly results from problem and pathological gambling. Children of compulsive gamblers are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and using drugs, and have an increased risk of developing problem or pathological gambling themselves.
“The National Research Council also noted the existence of a number of costly financial problems related to problem or pathological gambling, including crime, loss of employment, and bankruptcy. According to NRC, ‘As access to money becomes more limited, gamblers often resort to crime in order to pay debts, appease bookies, maintain appearances, and garner more money to gamble.’ NRC also states that ‘Another cost to pathological gamblers is loss of employment. Roughly one-fourth to one-third of gamblers in treatment in Gamblers Anonymous report the loss of their jobs due to gambling.’
“In addition, according to NRC, ‘Bankruptcy presents yet another adverse consequence of excessive gambling. In one of the few studies to address bankruptcy, Ladouceur et al. (1994) found that 28 percent of the 60 pathological gamblers attending Gamblers Anonymous reported either that they had filed for bankruptcy or reported debts of $75,000 to $150,000.’
“Others who are impacted by problem and pathological gambling include relatives and friends, who are often the source of money for the gambler. Employers may experience losses in the form of lowered productivity and time missed from work. Problem and pathological gamblers often engage in a variety of crimes, such as embezzlement, or simply default on their financial obligations. During our site visits, the Commission heard testimony from social service providers that churches, charities, domestic violence shelters, and homeless shelters are often significantly burdened by the problems created by problem and pathological gamblers.
“Some costs can be assigned a dollar figure. The Commission heard repeated testimony from compulsive gamblers who reported losing tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to gambling. Problem and pathological gamblers appear to spend a disproportionate amount of money on gambling compared to non-problem gamblers. According to NRC, these individuals report spending 4½ times as much on gambling each month as do non-problem gamblers.” (pp. 4-13, 4-14)
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“This Commission heard testimony about the growing numbers of individuals suffering from problem and pathological gambling, which often results in bankruptcy, crime, suicide, divorce, or abuse. While recent studies have attempted to ‘quantify’ these costs to society, the Commission knows that no dollar amount can represent what a lost or impaired parent, spouse or child means to the rest of the family. Furthermore, many of these costs are hidden and it is difficult to quantify the emotional damage and its long-term impact on families and their children. As NORC indicated in its report, ‘In a number of respects the tangible impacts from problem gambling can be thought of as analogous to the economic impacts of alcohol abuse. In both situations, inappropriate and/or excess participation in a legal and widely pursued leisure activity can exact an undesirable toll in individuals, family, friends, and the surrounding community.’ In reality, it is these hidden costs – the emotional costs of addictive behavior – that concern us far more than the annual economic expense of problem and pathological gamblers.” (p. 7-2)
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“How can we begin to measure the social impact of individuals who spend their children’s milk money or cash their welfare checks to buy lottery tickets, as the Commission heard during visits to convenience stores? We cannot, but the Commission can acknowledge that when gambling is promoted as ‘the only way to get ahead’ and, in particular, targets those who do not have ‘leisure dollars’ to spend, the economic and social, indeed, the moral fabric of our nation is damaged.” (p. 7-18)
The Commission’s report discusses at some length several specific outcomes relative to gambling addiction. The sections regarding those outcomes are excerpted below.
“Commissioners heard repeated testimony about suicide and attempted suicide on the part of compulsive gamblers. In Atlantic City, the Commission heard about a 16-year-old boy who attempted suicide after losing $6,000 on lottery tickets. In Chicago, Commissioners heard about a middle-aged couple in Joliet, Illinois, who both committed suicide after the wife accumulated $200,000 in casino debt. When evaluating the economic benefits of a proposed new facility, policymakers should also give serious consideration to consequences such as these.
“According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, approximately one in five pathological gamblers attempts suicide. The Council further notes that the suicide rate among pathological gamblers is higher than for any other addictive disorder.
“A survey of nearly 400 Gamblers Anonymous members revealed that two-thirds had contemplated suicide, 47 percent had a definite plan to kill themselves, and 77 percent stated that they have wanted to die.
“University of California-San Diego sociologist Dr. David Phillips found that ‘visitors to and residents of gaming communities experience significantly elevated suicide levels.’ According to Phillips, Las Vegas ‘displays the highest levels of suicide in the nation, both for residents of Las Vegas and for visitors to that setting.’ In Atlantic City, Phillips found that ‘abnormally high suicide levels for visitors and residents appeared only after gambling casinos were opened.’
Visitor suicides account for 4.28 percent of all visitor deaths in Las Vegas, 2.31 percent of visitor deaths in Reno, and 1.87 percent of visitor deaths in Atlantic City. Nationally, suicides account for an average of .97 percent of visitor deaths.” (p. 7-25)
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“Other observers have noted the fact that Nevada regularly reports the highest rate of suicide among all 50 states. For 1995, that rate was more than twice the national average. Testimony before the Commission indicated that, for numerous reasons, the magnitude of the link between gambling and suicide may be understated. For instance, Commissioners heard that gambling-related suicides and suicide attempts often are not reported as suicides, not tied to gambling, or disguised so as not to look like a suicide.” (p. 7-26)
“The Commission likewise heard abundant testimony and evidence that compulsive gambling introduces a greatly heightened level of stress and tension into marriages and families, often culminating in divorce and other manifestations of familial disharmony. In Las Vegas, Michelle ‘Mitzi’ Schlichter testified how she eventually ended her marriage to former NFL quarterback Art Schlichter after his second incarceration for gambling-related activities. In Biloxi, Mississippi, a school teacher testified how her 30-year marriage to a prominent Gulf Coast attorney crumbled after the husband developed an obsession with casino gambling. In Tempe, Arizona, Gwen Bjornson testified before the Commission how her 5- and 7-year-old sons’ ‘lives are forever changed because I was compelled to divorce their father, a compulsive gambler. Divorce is one of the most painful things that we, as adults, sometimes must face. Yet, without divorce, I am very much in doubt that I would have skirted a complete mental breakdown.’
“In NORC’s survey, 53.5 percent of identified pathological gamblers reported having been divorced, versus 18.2 percent of non-gamblers and 29.8 percent of low-risk gamblers. Further, NORC respondents representing two million adults identified a spouse’s gambling as a significant factor in a prior divorce.
“NRC concluded, ‘Many families of pathological gamblers suffer from a variety of financial, physical, and emotional problems.’ NRC reviewed studies showing that spouses of compulsive gamblers suffer high rates of a variety of emotional and physical problems. In a survey of nearly 400 Gamblers Anonymous members, 18 percent reported experiencing a gambling-related divorce. Another 10 percent said they were separated as a direct consequence of their gambling.” (p. 7-26, 7-27)
“Individuals with gambling problems seem to constitute a higher percentage of the homeless population. The Atlantic City Rescue Mission reported to the Commission that 22 percent of its clients are homeless due to a gambling problem. A survey of homeless service providers in Chicago found that 33 percent considered gambling a contributing factor in the homelessness of people in their program.
“Other data presented to the Commission further substantiated this link. In a survey of 1,100 clients at dozens of Rescue Missions across the United States, 18 percent cited gambling as a cause of their homelessness. Interviews with more than 7,000 homeless individuals in Las Vegas revealed that 20 percent reported a gambling problem.” (p. 7-27)
Abuse and Neglect
“Family strife created by gambling problems also appears in the form of abuse, domestic violence or neglect. In Biloxi, Mississippi, a witness testified before the Commission how her husband’s gambling problem affected their relationship: ‘I lived in fear daily due to his agitation and outbursts of violence: broken doors, overturned furniture, broken lamps, walls with holes in them. I haven’t the words to describe the hell that my life became on a daily basis.’
“NRC cites two studies showing that between one quarter and one half of spouses of compulsive gamblers have been abused. Six of the 10 communities surveyed in NORC’s case studies reported an increase in domestic violence relative to the advent of casinos.
“One domestic violence counselor from Harrison County, Mississippi, testified that a shelter there reported a 300 percent increase in the number of requests for domestic abuse intervention after the arrival of casinos. A substantial portion of the women seeking refuge reported that gambling contributed to the abuse.
“Other casino communities report similar experiences. Rhode Island Attorney General Jeffrey Pine reported a ‘significant increase’ in domestic assaults in the community of Westerly, R.I. after the opening of the Foxwoods casino 20 minutes away. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr. has likewise reported a linkage between expanded gambling and increases in domestic violence in numerous locales. The Commission even received testimony of several cases of spousal murder and attempted murder linked to problem and pathological gambling.
“Children of compulsive gamblers are often prone to suffer abuse, as well as neglect, as a result of parental problem or pathological gambling. The Commission heard testimony of numerous cases in which parents or a caretaker locked children in cars for an extended period of time while they gambled. In at least two cases, the children died. It was brought to the Commission’s attention that cases of parents leaving their children in the Foxwoods casino parking lot became so commonplace that Foxwoods management posted signs warning that such incidents would be reported to the police. The well-publicized murder of a seven-year-old girl in a Nevada casino during the formation of this Commission has brought significant attention to the issue of children abandoned by their parents inside gambling establishments.
“In its case studies of 10 casino communities, NORC reported, ‘Six communities had one or more respondents who said they had seen increases in child neglect, and attributed this increase at least in part to parents leaving their children alone at home or in casino lobbies and parking lots while they went to gamble.’ Respondents in these communities did not report noticeable increases in child abuse…. The NRC, however, reported on two studies indicating between 10 and 17 percent of children of compulsive gamblers had been abused.” (pp. 7-27, 7-28)
Read more summaries from the NGISC Report
**NGISC Report: Part 2 (Costs, Governmental Decisions, Lotteries)
**NGISC Report: Part 3 (Indian Gambling, Economic Impacts, Financial Crimes)
**NGISC Report: Part 4 (Internet Gambling, Sports Gambling)
**NGISC Report: Part 5 (Key Recommedations from the NGISC)
Original article publish date: 1999.
A revision of Ron Reno’s summary was posted by Chad Hills, a research analyst for gambling policy and sexual health for CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family.