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Front Page - Friday, May 24, 2019

Gambling addiction a worry as state gets into game

A little bet on a game? What’s the harm? For most people, the worst that will happen is losing a few bucks. For others, the little bet starts them down a slippery slope to problem gambling.

Gambling can tap into the fight-or-flight mechanism that helps people survive a crisis, says Mary-Linden Salter, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug and other Addiction Services. The Nashville nonprofit works to educate people about addiction and advocate for prevention, treatment and recovery services.

In fight-or-flight mode, the body releases adrenaline, making the person hyper-aroused and super-attentive to surroundings in order to protect themselves. Think of the extreme vigilance of a soldier on patrol to discover and disarm deadly improvised explosive devices.

Gambling addicts craves the hyper-aroused state and feel they can protect themselves, Salter explains. People in fight-or-flight mode or in hyper-arousal find it hard to step back and think of what they’re doing, leading other people to become frustrated with those in active addiction, she adds.

Intervention points are a little different from with substance abuse, she adds. There are well-known and widely accepted substance-abuse indicators: Do I drink every day? Can I function without using a substance? Is it interfering with my family life or work, for example?

A typical sign with gambling addiction is whether it is affecting work or family life, but that sign can be hard to detect.

For some who aspire to become professional gamblers, the threat of loss of job doesn’t hold the same sting as it would for people with other addictions. And it’s easy to gamble online undetected using a smartphone because they’re such a part of everyday life, and many employers cut employees a certain amount of slack when it comes to using a phone at work.

Adverse financial effects of gambling can be the first signs of addiction to the person and to his or her family. Many who gamble think they’re immune from addiction or other problems, and they’re a little bit more oblivious to the repercussions of problem gambling, she says.

Because the Tennessee Sports Gaming Act was presented to lawmakers as a tax revenue bill, it’s awkward to talk about potential addiction along with tax issues, Salter acknowledges.

Backers of the bill argued that the state, by legalizing online sports betting, would be able to capture money already being wagered illegally and tax it to benefit the state. The premise is that gamblers would make the switch to legal betting. It remains to be seen whether they will.

Several lawmakers talked about the need to prevent gambling during legislative hearings, with some questioning the wisdom of legalizing a potentially addictive activity while at the same time taking steps to stem opioid abuse and addiction.

Gambling addiction treatment is funded in the legislation that eventually passed.

But, Salter says, “I think the real gateway (to developing gambling problems) is that once it (online sports betting) is legalized, people’s perception of (potential) harm goes down. When gambling is legalized it becomes legitimized, and “something (people) might hesitate to join in seems perfectly OK.”