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Gift Horse or a Good Idea?

March 29, 2011

Should colleges treat gambling like alcohol, writing campus policies that control for abuse while acknowledging that gambling can be healthy in moderation?

The National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG), a charity funded by a powerful casino lobby, says yes -- and it wants to help walk college officials through the process. It plans to unveil a new Web-based resource center on Tuesday that supplies information about the dangers of gambling addiction and how colleges might go about formulating thoughtful policies on student gambling.

Meanwhile, a prominent group opposed to what it calls "predatory" gambling says colleges would be wise to look this gift horse in the mouth. The center's campaign for a more progressive administrative stance on college gambling, the group contends, is little more than an attempt to manufacture goodwill while the casinos and slot machine makers that fund the center lobby for permissive laws that would allow online casinos to infiltrate college dorm rooms.

The new website is an extension of a 2009 report from a task force of the responsible gaming group that depicted a policy landscape in higher education in which gambling and its attendant threats to student well-being were being largely ignored by colleges. As of 2005, the center said in the report, only 22 percent of the 119 colleges it sampled had written gambling policies. The center does not have any more recent scientific data, but it has no reason to think things have changed dramatically since then, says Christine Reilly, a senior research director there.

The site is supposed to be a step toward changing that, Reilly says. It offers a “toolkit” for campus administrators who want to make the case for a gambling policy on their campuses that includes templates and talking points for PowerPoint presentations, fact sheets, and suggestions for whom to invite to the table (a long list that includes deans, student groups, and various officials from the academic, athletics, student activities, and health services departments).

The toolkit also suggests the types of questions these officials might be wise to consider when writing a policy -- including compliance with state, local, and federal laws, whether student newspapers or athletics departments accept advertising from gambling interests, and whether the student health services staff is equipped to effectively treat gambling disorders.

Reilly says the center is exploring ways to promote the site and its recommendations, which could include giving money to enable colleges to initiate some of the prescribed policy making steps and to provide feedback, and providing interactive surveys for students who want to assess whether their gambling behaviors qualify as risky.

“It’s fantastic,” William E. Hanson, an assistant professor in the counseling psychology program at Purdue University, who has written on pathological gambling among college students, says of the website. “[It's] an outstanding, well-informed resource for college students, administrators, and parents. It’s well-organized, interactive, and, in my opinion, credible.”

Others are not so enthusiastic. The NCRG, while operating under an advisory board of academics and counselors, is funded by the American Gaming Association, a lobbying group that represents casinos, slot-machine manufacturers, and other industry players. The NCRG shares an office address with the association in downtown Washington.

To Les Bernal, executive director of the nonprofit Stop Predatory Gambling Foundation, the resources and recommendations on the NCRG’s new website and its “toolkit” represent not a good-faith effort to help colleges protect students, but a “public relations effort by predatory gambling interests” designed to set the agenda for how colleges should approach the issue of student gambling.

Reilly, the NCRG research director, insists that there is a “firewall” separating the donors to the center from the center's work -- including its research agenda, which she says is determined independently by its scientific advisory board, and its results, which she says are not reviewed or edited by industry lobbyists prior to publication. (Several academics involved with the 2009 NCRG task force told Inside Higher Ed that they had not felt pressured by industry lobbyists.)

Likening student gambling to student alcohol use, Reilly says the sweeping prohibitions on all gambling that prevail on many campuses do not acknowledge the idea that gaming can be fun and relatively safe in moderation. Besides, the gaming industry has no interest in creating addicts, she says. “Gambling addicts are not profitable, because they don’t pay their bills,” says Reilly. “The industry is committed to responsible gaming, and they don’t want [addicts] in their client base.”

Wrong and wrong, says Bernal. He points out that medical research suggests gambling has a chemical effect less similar to that of alcohol than to that of more powerful drugs -- cocaine for gambling addicts, morphine for non-addicts -- that tend to be banned on college campuses. He also disputes Reilly’s assertion that the gambling industry has no incentive to create gambling addicts, pointing out that gamblers become unable to pay only at the point that casinos have taken all their money.

A responsible college policy, Bernal says, might well allow certain types of “non-predatory” gambling, such as low-stakes card games among friends, which might not come with the same addiction risks as, say, slot machines. But colleges, he says, should not turn to entities associated with the gambling industry, which has advocated for new laws that would allow American companies to run casinos online. “If the American Gaming Association was serious about helping college kids,” says Bernal, “then they would not be aggressively lobbying to legalize predatory Internet gambling, which is the equivalent of opening a casino in every dorm room in America.”

According to a study published last year in the Journal of American College Health, the most common way that 18- to 21-year-olds gamble is by playing the lottery -- 41 percent of those who gambled did so. The second most common methods were card games and “charitable, small-stakes gambling,” such as office pools: each at 38 percent. Sports betting finished third, at 23 percent. Fifteen percent played at casinos, and 10 percent played slots or machine-based poker. The least popular form, according to the study, was Internet gambling, at 3 percent. (This paragraph has been updated since publication.)

 

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