Back in the ’90s when commercial and tribal casinos were popping up everywhere in response to a slumping economy Congress authorized the formation of a National Gambling Impact Study Commission to determine if we knew enough about legal gambling to ensure we were channeling its growth in ways that were socially and economically positive. What the commission found after three years of work was that we didn’t know very much at all. To quote its final report, our knowledge was “meager”.
When it came to problem gambling the void was deemed so serious that the commission spent nearly half of its $5 million budget trying to fill it. Prevalence was the big question, and it became a battleground between the pro- and anti-gambling forces of the time, with the result that what the commission got for its money was a hornet’s nest of contention over survey methodologies. Yet this was not without its upside. The experience woke the casino industry to the fact that it needed to grab some high ground, and quickly, and largely through the efforts of the American Gaming Association and some far-seeing executives social responsibility has become a cornerstone of corporate practice.
On the downside, here we are today, one massive recession later, dozens of state governments tapped out yet again and a new wave of expansion on the horizon, and what the commission acknowledged back in 1999 in the most unvarnished terms is as sadly relevant as ever. - “There are undeniably many millions of problem and pathological gamblers causing severe harm to themselves, their families and many others. Understanding the reasons that gambling disorders are multiplying is crucial to the health and stability of these families, their communities and many businesses.”
The commission believed nothing short of an all-out effort at the national level was required and offered a set of specific recommendations to that end. Nothing was done. In fact, seven years would pass before federal funding was even proposed as legislation. Its author was Martin Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat who has since left Washington. His bill, the “Comprehensive Awareness of Problem Gambling Act of 2006,” collected not a single co-sponsor and promptly died in a subcommittee of the House of Representatives. He reintroduced it in the next Congress with the same result.
Happily, though, it appears his efforts were not in vain. Last month his bill was raised from the grave in the form of H.R. 2906, the “Comprehensive Problem Gambling Act of 2009,” which appropriates $71 million over five years to fund grants to state health agencies, Indian tribes, universities and other non-profits for prevention, research and treatment. The bill resurrects both the essence of Meehan’s legislation and the recommendations of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission in three key areas: it brings problem gambling under the umbrella of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; it authorizes a “national campaign to increase knowledge and raise awareness with respect to problem gambling issues within the general public”; and it orders the president to appoint an advisory commission to “establish and implement a national program of research on problem gambling” that would draw on the resources of SAMHSA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other agencies.
The National Council on Problem Gambling, joined to date by treatment and support programs in 33 states and several leading clinical organizations, stands wholeheartedly behind this bill. As for the rest of us we’ve made it abundantly clear that we like gambling and we like it convenient and accessible. As such it’s delivered jobs and tax revenues, and we’ve prospered as a society because of it. Prosperity invariably entails costs. These likewise are dispersed society-wide. Bearing them together is no more than the right and sensible thing to do. We urge the representatives and senators of every gambling state to get behind H.R. 2906.
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