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Friday, Nov 28, 2014
Commentary

The harmful — even deadly — effects of casino gambling


Published:

The headline was stark: “Gambler jumps to his death at the Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y.” A few spare details followed: A man, name not released, leapt from the second-floor balcony of the gambling hall on Feb. 7, at 5:50 p.m. He died at Jamaica Hospital three hours later.

Just a few months ago, I stood in that very spot in the sprawling Queens slots parlor run by Genting, the Malaysian-based gambling giant that is pitching a similar mega-slot facility in Miami. I hadn’t come to the casino to get lucky, let alone think about suicide. I had come to Queens to see for myself what was going on in one of America’s fast-proliferating regional casinos and to talk to people who were spending a bright summer day inside a dark slots barn.

What I discovered gave me insight into the deadly effects – including the ultimate act of human despair – that are linked to modern casino gambling.

Florida lawmakers need to think about these effects as they weigh whether to expand gambling in the Sunshine State.

Casino gambling is not new, but two features are. One is the growth of gambling participation among older adults. In the 23 states with commercial casinos, roughly half of the patrons are age 50 and over. In Florida, with nearly 37 percent of the population 50 and over, gambling represents a huge potential market.

The second new feature is the 21st-century slot machine. Gone are the traditional one-armed bandits. They have been replaced by sophisticated, highly technical computerized devices that have simultaneously democratized gambling and intensified gambling problems.

Simply put, the new slot machine is engineered to addict people. It produces a mesmerizing experience of sound, lights and repetitive motion that makes both time and money vanish. Players talk of “disappearing” into the machine and getting into a zone.

Seniors, who may suffer from physical, mental and emotional health problems, are especially at risk of succumbing to computerized slots. Medication, cognitive impairment, depression and just plain sadness can interfere with judgment and decision-making. And the casino itself – dark, smoky, and filled with incessant noise, pulsating light and dizzying carpet patterns and layout — can contribute to mental confusion and disorientation. It is not uncommon for older people to suffer sudden heart attacks while playing the slots. Most casinos now have cardiac defibrillators on site.

Casinos cater to seniors in order to reel them in. They provide wheelchairs, scooters, and adult diapers for their older patrons. They offer come-ons like free transportation, cheap breakfast and lunch deals, free play rewards, and medication discounts. One casino even introduced an in-house pharmacy where 8,000 slot club points, awarded for frequent play, cover the $25 co-pay.

In my tour through Resorts World, I witnessed what happens when slots and seniors come together. Slots stretch for miles across the casino floor. A silver-haired person with a cane, walker or wheelchair filled every seat in the rows of slots. Each person sat silent and solitary, frozen in the ergonomically designed chairs, eyes locked onto the electronic screen, moving just one finger to hit “repeat bet” again and again. I had imagined people pulling levers on the one-armed bandits, but with the new computerized devices it now takes just a quiver of a muscle and a fraction of a second to make multiple bets.

At the Prince of Lightening slot machine, I met Judy, who wore a retractable cord connecting a player’s card on her belt to the machine.

Casinos use the cards to track when gamblers come and go and how much they spend.

In return, gamblers get rewards points to keep coming back.

I had to speak loudly over the constant din of machine sound and repeat myself several times to catch her attention.

I asked her how to play.

“You want four of the ladies in a row, and the lightening guy is always good,” she answered, without taking her gaze from her screen.

I asked if she came to the casino often, and Judy replied, still staring at her machine, “Uh, two or three times a week.”

“Do you like coming?”

“Oh, I guess … it’s something to do,” she shrugged, still fixated on the screen.

According to researchers, older women like Judy are the new face of gambling.

Unlike men, who generally are “action” gamblers, women are “escape” gamblers. They turn to slots for the morphine-like dulling of emotional pain from stress, loneliness, depression and the burdens of caregiving.

Women tell researchers that they want to “zone out,” to feel numb, to forget their troubles for a while. Slots, some say, are their therapy.

Older women, who report high levels of frequent emotional distress, are susceptible to escape gambling and to faster onset of full-blown addiction.

All the seniors I spoke to echoed Judy’s apathetic reply for why she comes, and thus casinos should change their ads to:

“Come Kill Time at the Casino. You Have Nothing Better to Do.”

I left the casinos feeling depressed myself and was not surprised to learn that Las Vegas displays the highest level of suicides both for residents and visitors.

After casinos opened in Atlantic City and other towns, the number of suicides there increased.

My thoughts return again and again to the gambler in Queens who ended his life at the Resorts World casino.

I cannot forget the image of his leap or ignore the dark irony of his suicide at an “entertainment” licensed by the state and marketed as wholesome fun.

Nor can I dismiss this singular act as something done by a disturbed person and “not my problem.”

If casinos were private businesses, I could stop patronizing them. But casinos are licensed and regulated by state governments.

Non-gamblers like me may benefit from the tax revenue states collect from casinos, but we also share in the social and economic costs.

So when a man jumps from a casino balcony at 5:50 p.m. on a Friday in February, his death is our problem, too.

Amy Ziettlow is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values and the author of the forthcoming “Seniors in Casino Land” report. She is speaking at an event co-hosted by the Center for Excellence in Elder Law at Stetson University College of Law at noon on Feb. 27 at the Tampa Law Center, 1700 N. Tampa St.

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