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The thrill of winning draws the compulsive gambler into betting more and more. But is it worth the cost?

“My name is Paul, and I am a compulsive gambler. It has been 40 days since my last bet. Forty days ago I didn’t realize I was a compulsive gambler. However, when I was confronted by my employer for embezzling, it finally hit me that I am and will always be a compulsive gambler. I am currently attending and will attend (for as long as I am allowed) Gamblers Anonymous meetings. I have lost a great career. . . . I am in the process of losing everything that I have worked for, with the exception of my wife and two children. My father hasn’t spoken to me since this all occurred, and my older sister will do anything to help my wife and children, but she wants nothing to do with me. I cannot blame her.

“If someone had told me 27 years ago when I made my first wager that when I was 39 years old, I would lose everything and be in a place where there are no freedoms, I would have told them that they were crazy because I am an intelligent person and I can control my gambling. The fact is that gambling took over my life and ruined it, and it ruined the lives of my family. It is an insidious addiction. You do things that no rational person would do. You don’t think of the consequences, and I am here to tell anyone who will listen that there are serious consequences for all of my horrible actions.”1

Paul is hardly alone. For more than ten million Americans, gambling is a serious problem. For three million, the compulsion is so powerful that health professionals label it pathological gambling, a condition as serious as substance abuse, depression, and antisocial behaviors. Problem gamblers are more likely to abuse alcohol, to be absent from work, and to commit fraud or embezzlement. There’s also a strong link between compulsive gambling and suicide.2

Unfortunately, defenders of legal gambling claim that it represents just another risk in the sense that “all of life is a gamble.” They argue that, just as the rest of life is filled with uncertainties (walking across the street, investing in the stock market, climbing on an airplane), playing the slot machines or betting on a sports team is another way of recognizing the randomness of things and hoping for the best.

Gambling is not a game

Although most major sports have gambling connections, gambling is not a game. It is serious business with millions of supporters and powerful lobbyists. The statistics are shocking. It is estimated that Americans spend as much as $550 billion a year in legalized gambling. On state-sanctioned lotteries, people spend about $88 million per day. In 2000, Internet gambling produced an estimated $2.2 billion in worldwide revenues, compared to the estimated $300 million gambled online in 1997. According to an article in the ABA Journal, online betting could reach $100 billion a year by 2006.3

Internet gambling’s potential is fueled by the ease of participation and the same anonymity that has made online pornography so popular. When an activity with strong addictive powers is made available on a system that allows almost universal access, an explosive growth is certain.

If one considers only the consequences suffered by problem gamblers and their families, that reason alone should make gambling a major social concern and raises questions about public responsibility. Should we oppose all forms of gambling? Or should we tolerate gambling with reasonable restrictions?

Gambling is not innocent

I personally oppose gambling for many reasons. It’s clearly not an innocent activity. Many people get hurt, and the lure of easy fortune affects the poor disproportionately. Unfortunately, as with alcohol and tobacco, the evidence of its harm is outweighed by the enormous profits it generates.

Moreover, gambling operates on the basis of deceit. It downplays the minuscule chance of winning. Casinos don’t have clocks or windows, thus hiding the passage of time, and many suspect that machines may be programmed for “near misses” to entice the user.

But the problem with gambling goes deeper. Consider these factors:

  1. Gambling promises easy gain. There’s very little effort in gambling. It is motivated by the chance of becoming rich by luck. In contrast, the Bible teaches us to invest our time and energy in labor that supplies our needs and those of our family. “He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment.”4 The apostle Paul expresses the work ethic of the Christian Scriptures: “Even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ ”5
  2. Gambling exploits the poor. Gambling depends on the losses of many for the benefit of one. These “many” are usually the poorest. For people in financial straits, gambling provides a false hope that sometimes prevents their taking positive steps toward a solution. This expectation of a miraculous turnaround keeps many on the path of financial irresponsibility.
  3. Gambling misuses our God-given resources. The Bible tells us that we are stewards of God’s creation. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”6 Jesus taught that we are to be held accountable as God’s servants.7 If the billions of dollars spent on gambling were used for the benefit of the poor—for better education and disease prevention, for instance—society would be much better served.
  4. Gambling is founded on greed. Gambling is an attempt to obtain the resources of others, without providing anything of real value in return. In a society that seems to value possessions above all else, it is not surprising that people may want to take shortcuts to get them. The tenth commandment prohibits believers from coveting another’s possessions,8 and Paul spoke against the insidiousness of greed when he wrote, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”9
  5. Gambling overlooks God. Finally, gambling opposes the principle of trusting God. It is motivated by our discontent with our material blessings, and it leads us to trust other sources that are in direct opposition to the way God provides for us.

How should we respond to the problem of gambling? We should avoid it ourselves and warn others about its dangers. We should not support either persons or measures that encourage gambling. We should show concern for those who have become addicted to gambling. Because gambling addiction can rob a person of his or her ability to change the behavior, treatment is absolutely necessary. Gambler’s Anonymous is a proven resource for group therapy, and certified counselors are available in many cities.*

One of my favorite Bible verses since childhood is appropriate counsel when tempted by gambling or the challenges of any other compulsive behavior: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”10

1Ban Yourself. 2See National Council on Problem Gambling. 3Ryan D. Hammer, “Does Internet Gambling Strengthen the U.S. Economy? Don't Bet On It,” Federal Communications Law Journal 54, December 2001. 4Proverbs 12:11. 52 Thessalonians 3:10. 6Psalm 24:1. 7See Matthew 25:14–30. 8Exodus 20: 17 91 Timothy 6:9, 10. 10Proverbs 3:5, 6.

*To get help for yourself or someone you know, call the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 800-522-4700, or visit the National Council on Problem Gambling Web site. Many other resources have Web sites, and local government offices can usually refer you to qualified counselors.

Miguel Valdivia is the managing editor of Signs of the Times.

Gambling: Is It Really That Bad?

by Miguel Valdivia
From the March 2006 Signs  

Frequently asked questions about problem gambling

What is problem gambling?

Problem gambling includes all gambling behavior patterns that compromise, disrupt, or damage personal, family, or vocational pursuits. The essential features are increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, “chasing” losses, and loss of control manifested by continuing the gambling behavior in spite of mounting serious, negative consequences. In extreme cases, problem gambling can result in financial ruin, legal problems, loss of career and family, or even suicide.

Isn’t problem gambling just a financial problem?

No. Problem gambling is an emotional problem that has financial consequences. If you pay all of problem gamblers’ debts, they will still be problem gamblers. The real problem is that they have an uncontrollable obsession with gambling.

Aren’t problem gamblers really irresponsible or weak-willed people?

No. Many people who develop problems have been viewed as responsible and strong by those who care about them. Precipitating factors can be changes in circumstances, such as retirement or job-related stress.

What kind of people become problem gamblers?

Anyone who gambles can develop problems if they are not aware of the risks and do not gamble responsibly. When gambling behavior interferes with finances, relationships, and the workplace, a serious problem already exists.

Can people be problem gamblers if they don’t gamble every day?

The frequency of a person’s gambling does not determine whether a gambling problem exists. Even though problem gamblers may go on only periodic gambling binges, the emotional and financial consequences will still be evident in the gamblers’ lives, including the effects on the families.

How can people be addicted to something that isn’t a substance?

Although no substance is ingested, problem gamblers receive the same effect from gambling as someone else might get from taking a tranquilizer or having a drink. Gambling alters peoples’ moods, and they keep repeating the behavior attempting to achieve that same effect. But just as tolerance develops to drugs or alcohol, gamblers find that it takes more and more of the gambling experience to achieve the same emotional effect as before. This creates an increased craving for the activity, and gamblers finds they have less and less ability to resist as the craving grows in intensity and frequency.

Are problem gamblers usually addicted to other things too?

It is generally accepted that people with one addiction are more at risk to develop another. Some problem gamblers also find they have a problem with alcohol or drugs. This does not, however, mean that a person with a gambling problem is guaranteed to develop other addictions. There also appears to be evidence of family patterns of dependency as many problem gamblers report one or both parents had a drinking and or gambling problem.

How widespread is gambling in the U.S.?

Approximately 85 percent of adults in the United States have gambled at least once in their lives, 60 percent in the past year. Some form of legalized gambling is available in 48 states plus the District of Columbia. The two states without legalized gambling are Hawaii and Utah.

Can children or teenagers develop gambling problems?

A number of states allow children under 18 to gamble, and youth also participate in illegal forms of gambling, such as gambling on the internet or betting on sports. Therefore, it is not surprising that research shows that a vast majority of kids have gambled before their 18th birthday and that children may be more likely to develop problems related to gambling than adults.

Adapted from the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling and British Columbia Partnership for Responsible Gambling and available on the National Council on Problem Gambling’s Web site.