As reported by The Denver Post, May 14, 2007.

State Places No Money on Table for Gambling Addicts

By Kevin Simpson

In the throes of a week-long gambling binge, Larry all but forgot about food and drink until he collapsed on the flight home from Las Vegas.

At a Denver hospital, intravenous fluids revived him as emergency-room workers hooked him to a heart monitor. Later, after he had demanded his release and slipped into bed at home, his wife sleepily laid her hand on his chest - and was startled to find an electronic lead still taped there.

He assured her he was fine, that he just "overdid it" on his trip - grossly understating the gambling addiction that was just dawning on him.

"For one week, I'd lost all control, gambled away a lot of money and, more important, put myself in harm's way," he recalls. "I realized something pathologic was going on."

Larry, now a 41-year-old member of the recovery group Gamblers Anonymous, continued gambling hard for a decade more - from dog tracks to Powerball to Colorado's mountain casinos to Vegas to the Internet. He nearly lost everything, including his marriage, before confronting his problem.

His ordeal offers a glimpse of the collateral damage from legalized gambling in a state that reaps hundreds of millions of dollars from the increasingly popular pastime.

But Colorado, which approved a lottery in 1982 and opened the doors to limited-stakes gambling eight years later, remains among a handful of states that don't dedicate public money to address problem gambling.

"People can convincingly argue that gambling is a nice, fun thing for most people to do - that's OK," says J. Michael Fara gher of the Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center at the University of Denver. "What isn't OK is to ignore the destruction in its wake. Our state is not putting back anything toward the solution to the problems, and a certain percentage of lives are destroyed."

Gauging the problem

National estimates of problem gambling's prevalence hover around 2 percent to 3 percent of the adult population. But Nancy Petry, psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center and one of the leading researchers on the subject, says that while less than 1 percent meet the psychiatric definition of pathological gambling, upward of 5 percent have some degree of a problem.

Contributions from the Colorado Lottery and the gambling industry have driven the state's relatively modest efforts at treatment and awareness - including the DU program that offers free counseling.

In Colorado, state taxes on casinos raked in more than $100 million in 2005 and 2006, and lottery proceeds have topped that figure in each of the past six years.

"Any state that's in the gambling business has a responsibility to recognize that this issue exists," says Lois Rice, executive director of the Colorado Gaming Association, which represents casinos.

"We're a newer addiction," says Amber Bunch, executive director of the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado, a consortium of industry representatives and treatment advocates. "There are also some cultural implications that problem gambling is something people should just get over, a pull-themselves-up-by- their-bootstraps mentality."

Forty-eight states have legalized gambling - bets are off in Utah and Hawaii - and all but 11 of those states have designated public funding to address what some experts call an "invisible addiction."

Lou, another Gamblers Anonymous client from the Fort Collins area, got in so deep he wound up with a bank-fraud conviction.

He wasn't just a compulsive gambler anymore. He was a compulsive liar.

"I even got to the point of creating fake bank statements on the computer," he says. "I'd open up envelopes and put them in, so my wife would see them and think we had money."

The Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado operates on a $75,000 annual budget with its first and only paid employee - executive director Bunch - working 15 hours a week from home.

The national average for states is just more than $1 million.

Until about three years ago, Bunch says, the coalition ran on a $15,000 shoestring and couldn't find seed money for the pilot DU program.

After Las Vegas-based Ameristar bought a property in Black Hawk and approached the coalition about how it could help, other industry players followed suit, Bunch adds.

But state support has been harder to come by.

Ten years ago, the Department of Revenue commissioned a study to determine the baseline numbers for problem gambling in Colorado.

State never followed up

Based on population figures at the time, it estimated that about 3 percent of 7,800 probable pathological gamblers would seek services and recommended that Colorado plan to treat about 250 people per year.

The state never acted on that recommendation.

"After the prevalence study, it just was not perceived as pervasive enough to warrant state funding," says Rice, who also serves on the board of the problem-gambling coalition.

In 2002, Rice explored - unsuccessfully - the idea of tapping into the state's Local Government Limited Gaming Impact Program to address problem gambling.

More than $6 million in annual impact money has covered needs ranging from road maintenance to day care for casino employees' children, although roughly two-thirds goes to law enforcement and emergency services, says program director Eric Bergman.

But it remains tied to the five counties that host casinos and eight contiguous counties - effectively eliminating areas such as Denver where casino customers, and current treatment options, are clustered.

State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Jefferson County, sits on the advisory committee that hears applications for impact money. She says legal experts are looking at the law to see if there's a way to tap into that fund for problem-gambling relief.

"But it's not something that rises to a level of concern that causes a lot of people - other than myself, who has gambling in their district - to get excited about it," Fitz-Gerald says. "It's not that they're not sympathetic, but everybody is trying to prioritize everything."

Primarily from its $8.6 million marketing budget, the lottery contributes $854 a month toward a problem-gambling hotline - but none of that money is guaranteed by law. It also helps with the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado website, public-service announcements for National Problem Gambling Awareness Week and other in-kind contributions.

About 10 years ago, casinos began training employees to recognize problem gamblers and point them toward resources, although they didn't want workers to become "intervention people," Rice says. Brochures and stickers in the casinos also steer individuals toward help.

The gambling industry channeled $50,000 through the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado this year into DU's Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center, which is completing its third year.

Since its unveiling in 2005, the DU program has treated 78 clients and reports a 90 percent success rate in helping them either quit or reduce the amount of money wagered.

Free or low-cost counseling represents a major treatment component because problem gamblers often don't admit their addiction until they're tapped out and on the verge of drastic action.

Treatment advocates predict that with the growing presence of gambling on television and its increased accessibility on the Internet, the problem will only grow.

Recovering gamblers such as Larry understand they're walking a fine line between normalcy and a powerful addiction. He's reminded of that every time he passes a Powerball billboard and feels a familiar twinge.

"I'm a compulsive gambler - that will never change," he says. "The temptation is always there. Given the right opportunity and circumstances, I will gamble again."