Pa. gaming industry’s growth amplifies siren call for addicts
Darlene Moulden of Carnegie started gambling when she was young, buying lottery tickets. When Pennsylvania expanded its legal gambling to casinos, she graduated to playing slots.
Now Moulden, 50, a bookkeeper, is accused of stealing more than $31,000 from her former Aspinwall employer to help fund her gambling addiction . Her trial before an Allegheny County judge is scheduled for Thursday.
At least two other people from Western Pennsylvania are scheduled for court hearings related to accusations that they supported gambling habits by embezzling money, ranging from $51,000 to $175,000.
“The bottom line is addiction is a horrible thing and it comes in all kinds of forms,” said Milton Raiford, Moulden’s attorney. “For some people, legalizing gambling is like legalizing heroin.”
Compulsive and problem gambling is an issue across the nation, experts say, and they predict it will worsen as gambling opportunities increase. Pennsylvania casinos grossed more than $9.3 billion during the past three years, and lottery sales reached $3.8 billion last year.
An estimated 280,000 Pennsylvanians — or about 2 percent of the state’s population — are addicted to gambling, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
The state’s 2004 slots law established a fund to address compulsive gambling through education, treatment and research programs.
“We recognize there is a certain percentage of the population that is challenged by our industry,” said Craig Clark, general manager of Rivers Casino on the North Shore. “But I don’t believe the percentage has changed as gambling has been introduced in any jurisdiction.”
Pennsylvania legalized harness horse racing in 1963. Lawmakers added lottery games in 1971 and small games of chance in 1988. They expanded the casino law in 2010 to add table games, and in recent years have debated legalizing Internet gambling, Keno games and video poker machines.
“It’s not if they are going to expand, it’s when,” said Jody Bechtold of Mt. Lebanon, a licensed clinical social worker and nationally recognized gambling counselor. “There are a lot of things we could be doing better, and we need to do better, since we know gambling is here to stay.”
Tracking problem gamblers
It is difficult to gauge how much problem gambling has grown over the years, especially since the inception of casinos, Bechtold said.
“The state did a lousy job with baseline research,” she said. “We will really never know if things are getting better or worse.”
In addition to the 2 to 3 percent of Pennsylvanians addicted to gambling, a group equal to that size is predisposed to addiction, said Elizabeth Lanza, director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s Office of Compulsive and Problem Gambling.
More legalized wagering likely will result in more people developing gambling problems, she said.
“You have to remember, though, it is such a small number of people,” Lanza said. “But it is a huge, enormous problem for a tiny number of individuals.”
State regulators in 2006 started a self-exclusion list for people to bar themselves voluntarily from casinos for terms ranging from a year to life. The list contained 184 names by the end of its second year. As of March 31, it had nearly 8,200 names.
That does not necessarily indicate that more people are becoming addicted to gambling, Lanza said, noting that more casinos have opened and more people are aware of the list.
“I’m sure, at some point, the growth will level off once all of our casinos are open,” Lanza said.
In addition to the 12 casinos in operation, a second Philadelphia facility is slated to open next year, and the state’s final casino license — tentatively tied to a beleaguered Lawrence County racetrack project — awaits approval.
‘We want you to get help’
Keeping problem gamblers out of casinos is just good business, said Michael Keelon, compliance director at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington County.
“It gives the industry a bad name, and it’s not beneficial for anyone involved,” Keelon said. “We want people to come here to enjoy themselves and have a good time.”
Casinos advertise the PA Problem Gambling Hotline, he said. To curtail pathological gambling, they use security staff, trained floor employees, cameras and facial recognition software to look for signs of problem gamblers and anyone on the self-exclusion list.
“We can’t force anyone to seek counseling or to seek financial assistance,” Keelon said. “They have to want to do it.”
Lottery officials also recognize the potential for addiction. Tickets bear a “Play Responsibly” message and information on the gambling hotline. Since 2002, the lottery has paid $150,000 annually to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania.
“If you have a gambling problem, we do not want you to play lottery games,” said Pennsylvania Lottery spokesman Gary Miller. “We want you to get help.”
Scratch-off lottery tickets and slot machines pose the biggest risk for problems, said Kathleen Zamperini, director of counseling at Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and a nationally certified gambling counselor.
“It’s known as escape gambling,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me they gambled responsibly for years until the casinos came to town. Then it was just so close.”
Zamperini asks people two questions: Have you ever lied about your gambling? Have you ever felt the need to bet more to make up for losses?
“More than likely, there is a problem if you answer ‘yes’ to either question or both,” she said. “But the biggest problem is people coming forward and asking for help. (Gambling addiction) tends to be a problem that is well-hidden.”
State officials who track gambling addiction and prevention think Pennsylvania is making progress toward improving the problem. One indicator, said Carey Miller, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, is “the leveling off of treatment expenditures” for gambling.
Nothing in the department’s 2014 Compulsive and Problem Gambling Annual Report, released this month, raised concerns, Miller said.
Help through a hotline
The state’s gambling hotline logged 5,575 calls from people specifically seeking gambling-related treatment from July 2011 through June 2014, records show.
The call center, in Louisiana, averages more than 1,600 calls monthly, said Jim Pappas, president and executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia-based group that maintains the hotline.
“We try to assess the situation and make the proper referral,” Pappas said.
Call takers might refer people to groups such as Gamblers Anonymous or to private therapists if they have health insurance coverage.
The state covers the cost of out-patient counseling for uninsured people. Records show Pennsylvania has spent $670,000 since 2011 to treat 520 gambling addicts — money that came from the state’s casinos.
Moulden is in therapy for her addiction, said Raiford, who would not make her available for an interview before her non-jury trial.
“When you think about how much money the casinos make and how much they spend on the problem of addiction, it’s lopsided,” Raiford said. “At what point does the government have a responsibility for taking care of its citizens? How much money are you trying to make, and at what cost?
“I just think it is a sin to put people in that position.”
Jason Cato is a writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or [email protected].