Ohio grapples with problem gambling

Josh McClellan already had a gambling problem when Hollywood Casino opened in Toledo, giving the Army veteran a dangerous new place to play his money away.

He would start at the tables with anywhere from $300 to $1,500, working his way through poker and blackjack. When he lost too much money at cards, he would play the slots for a while, win some back, and return to the tables to lose the rest.

“I loved going to the casino,” he said. “I usually didn't leave until the money was gone.”

Mr. McClellan's story is similar to thousands of other stories from across Ohio. More than 76,000 people — or nearly 1 percent of the state’s population — admitted to struggling with a gambling addiction last year, according to data from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

It’s a problem that predates the rise of Ohio’s casino system following the passage of a state constitutional amendment in 2009. And while Ohio's casinos may have made gambling more accessible, they’re also required by law to generate much-needed revenue — totaling $30.4 million as of March, 2018 — to fund gambling addiction treatment services. Without that revenue, experts said, organizations that help gambling addicts would receive even less funding and would help even fewer people.

But those organizations are already underfunded while they try to meet the needs of a steadily growing population of problem gamblers. And experts agree that gambling accessibility is only going to increase.

Signs are everywhere: In November it became legal in Ohio to purchase lottery tickets with a credit card. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can allow legalized sports betting, even though there’s currently no indication that Ohio will take that step. Even video games and smart phone games that require payments in order to advance — games often marketed to children — are just another form of normalizing gambling, experts said.

Steve Kapela, a gambling addiction counselor who works at the Toledo-based Zepf Center, said that, as it gets easier and easier to gamble, the prevalence of problem gambling will likely grow. Unless the legislation that distributes a small part of the casinos' tax dollars to local treatment and prevention programs expands to include activities like online gambling, services intended to treat gambling addiction before more lives are ruined will be overrun.

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