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Nevada Kills Funds for Problem Gambling

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A problem gambler and an eleven-year-old severely autistic girl walk into a bar. This is rich stuff. You'll already know the material if you've been following Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval's steps toward killing state funding for problem-gambling treatment. Those steps, and the rhetoric surrounding them, underscore something remarkable: in the world's gambling capital, the casino industry's number-one by-product is regarded as a nasty little joke.

Sandoval, for now, has merely proposed cutting in half what the state spends on problem gambling. But the resulting amount -- less than $750,000 -- is close to the zero that was earmarked in the not-so-distant past (pre-2005), especially as a percentage of the $800 million Nevada collects in taxes from casinos. At one-eighth of what Oregon spends on the identical problem, the reduced figure leaves Nevada trailing other states (including New York, which, with nothing but a handful of tribal casinos, devotes $4.3 million each year).

Endorsing the reduction, State Senator Ben Kieckhefer has noted that funding for autism treatment is also facing cuts. He views the latter cause as eminently worthier. "If I see a problem gambler and an eleven-year-old severely autistic girl sitting next to each other, I know which one I'm going to choose," he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The implication is not merely that anyone would make the same choice (the girl is an object of compassion, of course, and the gambler an object of scorn). The implication is that Nevada's responsibility toward both types is analogous.

It's not.

Nevada's economy isn't centered on an industry that cultivates, and benefits from, autism. It's centered on gambling. Its citizens suffer from gambling-related pathologies at nearly twice the national rate. (The casinos' own employees are at the greatest risk of all: a Harvard study found higher rates of pathological gambling among casino employees than among the general population.) Mentally diseased gamblers contribute disproportionately to casinos' -- and the state's -- bottom lines.

During the thousands of casino hours I logged in the course of five years counting cards for a living, I gained access to an in-joke that I'd rather forget, but I can't. It's a joke known to anyone who's stayed sober, and stayed in one seat at a blackjack table, and studied the behavior of his peers, and studied the behavior of the bosses. The joke, such as it is, is on the addicts. The joke is that we all have you pegged. The bosses shake their heads behind your back, and roll their eyes -- then send for the host, who extends your comped room and puts his arm around your shoulder like a friend. No one respects you, nor likes you, and when you're broken, you'll get no compassion.

What you'll get, instead, is perverse analogies from state senators, and denials from casino apologists who paraphrase Casablanca: "I am shocked, shocked to find that problem gambling is going on in here."

Industry defenders -- adhering closely to a PR regimen organized by the American Gaming Association (whose president, Frank Fahrenkopf, in a notorious 1996 speech cited the missteps of Big Tobacco as examples of what not to do when trafficking in habit-forming products ) -- acknowledge that addiction is real. But they pointedly characterize it as so rare as to verge on non-existent. An AGA "Fact Sheet" cites a U.S. pathological gambling prevalence rate as low as 0.9 percent. This tiny-looking figure hinges on a diagnostic technicality that distinguishes "pathological" from the more widespread, but similar, "problem gambling." In Nevada, the estimated combined prevalence of both conditions is 6.4 percent, according to a 2002 report to the state's Department of Human Resources.

But high Nevada prevalence isn't really the point. Because addicted gamblers incur lifetime losses many thousands of times greater than those of ordinary tourists, their importance to the industry is significant, even if their numbers are small. The case of Terry Watanabe makes this obvious. Watanabe, an Omaha philanthropist, vaporized $204 million at Caesars-owned casinos during a year-long, alcohol-and-drug-fueled, casino-encouraged bender in Las Vegas. His attorneys say he singlehandedly accounted for 20 percent of the gambling revenue at Caesars Palace in 2007 -- one person, one addict, one problem.

An economy dependent on such people bears responsibility toward them. At the very least, they should be thanked instead of scorned. (Caesars didn't see it that way: once Watanabe quit gambling the company took him to court, claiming it was owed even more.) Sandoval's budget and Kieckhefer's poetics make Nevada's contempt for its most devoted customers a very cold punchline to a hideous joke.