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Gambling means trouble for some

By JIM DALY ~ The Patriot Ledger

athleen Scanlan, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, has no qualms about adults gambling at casinos.

She knows more than 90 percent do so responsibly.

GARY HIGGINS/The Patriot Ledger

Health officials have noticed a rise in the number of elderly who gamble to deal with loss, according to Kathleen Scanlon, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.

It’s the 5 to 6 percent of the those who are addicted to gambling that Scanlan worries about, especially if casinos come to Massachusetts.

The difference between the six-hour plane ride to Las Vegas and a two-hour trip to the Connecticut casinos is significant, she said.

“It provides the easy accessibility,” she said. “It’s a very significant public policy change to put casinos near large population centers.”

Scanlan is on the 19-member commission appointed by acting Gov. Jane Swift to study the effects of casino gambling in Massachusetts.

Scanlan said many problem gamblers have gambled their own money away, so they borrow from family and friends, max out credit cards or remortgage homes (often without telling spouses) to continue gambling.

According to the council, from 200,000 to 300,000 Massachusetts residents are problem gamblers. About 65,000 to 90,000 are considered compulsive, or pathological, gamblers.

“You’re always chasing your losses, almost working in the past, always trying to make up for it,” Scanlan said of compulsive gamblers.

Marlene Warner, a program director at the council, said compulsive gamblers tend to keep secrets, usually involving finances, from spouses and other family members. “It’s not just impacting that one person, it’s impacting their family, community and work environment,” she said.

Scanlan said things get worse when compulsive gamblers resort to embezzlement or forging financial documents to feed a gambling habit.

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The Massachusetts council receives 2,000 to 3,000 calls about gambling annually.

The top three problems involve casino gambling, sports betting and Lottery games, such as scratch tickets and Keno, Scanlan said.

In recent years, Warner said, gambling on the Internet has increased substantially. “Just this week we’ve had two callers calling about betting on horses online,” she said.

Also increasing are the numbers of people who bet huge sums on the stock market, hoping it will deliver a windfall, Scanlan said. While it may not seem like it, that’s a form of gambling, she said.

Warner said compulsive gambling is not limited to class. She said the homeless, a population with few resources, have a high percentage of problem gamblers.

Lately, health officials have noticed a rise in the number of elderly who gamble.

“People in that group are very often dealing with losses,” Scanlan said. “Gambling is a way for people to deal with loss.”

Problem gamblers, like alcoholics, are encouraged to quit cold turkey, according to Gamblers Anonymous, the national organization that was formed in 1957.

Warner said there are also organizations - Gam-Anon is one - that help a problem gambler’s family members and friends cope.

Scanlan said the programs can work. She’s seen a significant number of people turn their lives around.

“People do get better. They can face it,” she said. “We’ve met as many people that are doing well now.”

Jim Daly may be reached at jdaly@ledger.com.

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