DECEMBER 18, 2003
Andrew Weaver and Christopher G. Ellison
Experts estimate that there are at least four million problem gamblers in
the United States. As signs of gambling-related problems are not well known,
nor understood, it is vital that faith communities be informed about the impact
of gambling addiction on individuals and their families. The reality is that
Americans spend more on gambling than on movies, sporting events, concerts,
and theater combined.
The good news is that researchers have begun to find that religious involvement can be a protective factor against problem gambling. In a nationwide sample of U. S. adults, religious attendance was inversely associated with the risk of problem gambling. Sociologists at the University of Texas found in a statewide survey that religious attendance and belief in the Bible are inversely associated with the frequency of playing the state lottery, as well as the amount of money spent on the lottery. In two other studies, among individuals in Nevada and Australia, the frequency of gambling and the amount of money gambled was discovered to be inversely related to the level of importance of religion for the person and the frequency of attendance at religious services.
Like alcohol, gambling is a social activity for most people, but for a significant minority it is devastatingly addictive. Most compulsive gamblers say that they seek the "high" of betting and increase the amounts of money they wager to achieve it. They tend to "chase" the losses of one day with increased betting on the next day. Experts argue that gambling for some individuals is no less potent that heroin or cocaine and that gambling is the fastest growing addiction in the United States.
In 1988, only two states had large-scale casino gambling; now 27 states have it. Thirty-seven states operate a lottery, and some form of gambling is legal in 48 states. Advertisements for online gambling sites appear all over the internet. There are 280 Web sites that offer online gambling for real money. Online betters gamble at the rate of about 10 billion dollars a year and it is growing fast.
Problem gambling's impact on families and youth is only beginning to be understood. For example, adult problem gamblers are more likely to divorce, have destabilized families, drink excessively and use drugs, abuse their wives and children, suffer depression, and attempt suicide. The children of problem gamblers are more likely to do poorly in school; use illicit drugs, tobacco, and alcohol; run away; attempt suicide; indicate they are unhappy; and take up gambling than children from non-gambling families. Three out of four children of problem gamblers report that their first gambling experience occurred before age 11. This is the first generation of American children to have grown up in a society where gambling has been widely legalized, accepted, marketed, and glamorized.
As gambling proliferates, it increases the exposure of children to gambling and their vulnerability to the addiction. Increasingly, the market-savvy gambling industry is pushing the concept of "Family Entertainment Centers," which include places for adults to gamble while their children engage in other entertainment. The aim of the gambling industry is to create the next generation of gamblers from the children who watch their parents get excited by gambling. Researchers at Harvard Medical School reviewed nine studies of 7,700 young people, ages 15-20, in the United States and Canada. They found that 9.9 to 14.2 percent displayed problems in gambling and 4.4 to 7.4 percent met the diagnostic criteria for "pathological gambling" disorder. These figures are two to three times greater than those reported among adults.
As a culture, we need to teach our children that playing the lottery and gambling are not good ways to gain independence and find fulfillment. Pastors and members of congregations can also reach out to young people by providing information and alternatives. Teens, for example, who connect to a religious youth group may find it a helpful place to find peer support that can assist them in quitting gambling or not starting. Faith-based intervention programs need to address teens' abilities to recognize social and advertising pressures by the gambling industry as well as develop skills to resist such pressures.
Faith communities can take this research seriously, reaching out to teens and adults to show that work, discipline, and service are the ways to a meaningful and rewarding life, not dumb luck.
The Rev. Andrew Weaver, M.Th., Ph.D., is a United Methodist pastor and a clinical psychologist. He is Director of Research for The HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York City. He has co-authored 8 books including Reflections on Marriage and Spiritual Growth (Abingdon, 2003) and Counseling Survivors of Traumatic Events (Abingdon, 2003).
Christopher G. Ellison, Ph.D., is Elsie and Stanley E. Adams, Sr. Centennial Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently the Principal Investigator of the National Survey of Religion and Family Life, funded by the Lilly Endowment.