NH Casino Would Mean Building Addiction Services From The Ground Up

May 21, 2013

Ed Talbot is among a small core of people working to start a Council on Problem Gambling in New Hampshire.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

As the New Hampshire House prepares to vote on a casino bill this week, NHPR is bringing you a series of stories that look at the implications of opening a casino in the Granite State.  Today we turn our focus to the potential social costs related to gambling addiction: how the state is handling problem gambling now, and how it could in the future.

Ed Talbot is the picture of a put-together guy.  He sits in a Boston café, well-dressed, his silver hair carefully buzz-cut, and a manila folder full of facts and figures within easy reach.  But he admits his life wasn’t always this organized.  Thirty-five years ago, it was a mess.  He was addicted to gambling.

“And finally on the last night of racing at Taunton Dog Track, November 30, 1977, I put whatever money I had left on a dog by the name of Perfect Treasure.  The starting box opened, the dogs came out, and Perfect Treasure fell.  And my dream world came crashing down," Talbot says.  "Five days later, I was contemplating suicide with a dive off a bridge.”

Like many gambling addicts, the road to Rock Bottom was a long one for Talbot.  Over eight years, he gained weight, smoked three packs a day.  His wife kicked him out of the house.  His mother begged him to stop--on her deathbed. And then there was his daughter.

“Where so many times when she was growing up, gymnastics routines, she was big into gymnastics, I was never there.  Birthday parties, Daddy had to take off and go to the track,” Talbot says. 

Since that last race in 1977, he hasn’t gambled at all.  And he's now working to establish a New Hampshire chapter of the Council on Problem Gambling to help others.  He says the state doesn't have nearly enough prevention or treatment services in place.

“If you go to the 2-1-1 line for services there’s not even a mention of problem gambling.  So, you know, who do you call?" Talbot asks.

Not a gambling addiction counselor.   

About half of all states, including Massachusetts, certify specialists in problem gambling.  New Hampshire doesn’t.  And Talbot says substance abuse counselors aren't effective substitutes.  The best bet for help in New Hampshire is to find one of the five Gamblers Anonymous meetings.  They’re all in the southern part of the state.

“It’s intensely and extraordinarily frustrating,” says Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Problem Gambling head Keith Whyte. 

The council’s hotline ends up taking a lot of calls from here.  Over an 18-month period, the group counted almost 1,000 calls from New Hampshire.  Whyte says no one knows for sure how many people in the state might have a problem with gambling.  His group provides a wide estimate of somewhere between 13,000 and 40,000.  If someone does call the hotline, the group refers him or her to one of those five Gamblers Anonymous meetings.  Or in a pinch, to Alcoholics Anonymous

While the council is adamantly neutral on all casino debates, Whyte says he’s worried about how New Hampshire would handle expanded gaming.

“New Hampshire's, of course, one of the oldest modern US lotteries—to still not provide any services, not provide any funding for problem gambling, um…you know, that doesn’t set a very good track record," Whyte says.

He adds, "Even if New Hampshire were to put tons of money into problem gambling programs now with this new casino bill?  There's no infrastructure whatsoever to build on. So we’re very concerned that the state would be able to manage this in a responsible manner.”

The Senate-passed bill—SB-152—does address gambling addiction.  It calls for an estimated $1.7 million to go toward treatment and prevention in 2015.  Within a couple years, the state figures that number would shoot up to about $4.5 million. 

Steve Norton takes questions during a recent subcommittee hearing.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

Once a casino is fully established, the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies estimates the state could have to pay up to $3.7 million for treatment and prevention each year.

Center Executive Director Steve Norton recently testified before a House subcommittee looking at social impacts of a casino. Opponents say that includes more bankruptcies and divorces, higher unemployment, more welfare claims and property crimes.

“Pathological gambling doesn’t occur the instant you put a casino up," Norton says.  "Just like the revenue question, there’s some timing associated with it.  And that is particularly important if you’re interested in developing programs designed to mitigate any potential pathological gambling.”

Norton and other researchers also say that a few years after the initial spike in problem gambling, the numbers do start to go down.  But in general, Professor Clyde Barrow of  UMass-Dartmouth says concerns about social costs are overblown.  And that's what he told lawmakers at a recent lunch presentation for them in Concord, where Millennium Gaming made the case for expanded gambling at Rockingham Park in Salem.

Governor Maggie Hassan supported a casino during her campaign, and continues to push for it as a way to fund her budget priorities.
Credit NHPR

“There have been three comprehensive cost-benefit analyses of expanded gaming in the states of Iowa, Illinois, and Louisiana.  And in every single case, those studies concluded that the benefits to the state outweighed the costs by about a two-to-one ratio,” Barrow says.

Casino supporters, like Governor Maggie Hassan, argue that New Hampshire already faces these problems, thanks to casinos in neighboring states.

“And even groups that say they don’t particularly like casinos concede that if we don’t have one, we will lose at least $75 million a year in social costs and lost rooms and meals revenues down to Massachusetts or over to Maine,” Hassan says.

If the current casino bill becomes law, the state's Department of Health and Human Services would oversee the money set aside for treatment and prevention.  The Senate's bill designates one percent of slot machine revenue to DHHS.

The state has tried this kind of set-up once before, with the Alcohol Fund, established in 2001.  Five percent of gross liquor profits were to go to DHHS for addiction services—right off the top.

It was fully funded for one year. 

In 2003, the state began putting the money into the general fund. Last biennium, general fund expenditures for alcohol and drug addiction programs were cut in half.  Joe Harding directs the state's Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services.  He says between state and federal funding, right now, the department can treat about five-percent of drug addicts and alcoholics. And he hesitates to say if the state would keep its commitment to funding gambling addiction programs.

"I really wouldn’t know," Harding says. "You know, that’s something you’d have to take up with the legislature.”

He says it would take at least a year to get a gambling addiction program ready to go. 

Counselor and recovered gambling addict Ed Talbot says that’s exactly why he needs state funds for his fledging New Hampshire chapter of the Council on Problem Gambling.

“I think the biggest thing that’s holding us up right now is, the casino bill itself.  Everybody is, well, let’s see what happens with the casino bill," Talbot says.  "I’d be very, very surprised if it gets state funding if the casino bill doesn’t pass, from what I’ve heard.”

Talbot says with $200,000, the council could do a lot.  Right now, though, it’s still working on getting non-profit status from the IRS.  Between various fees, getting a PO Box, and all the little nitty-gritties of starting a non-profit, the council has spent $900. 

Right now, it’s got a hundred bucks in the bank.