Casino caution – Gambling counsellor warns about pitfalls

A compulsive gambling counsellor from the United States is raising the red flag about the possible harmful impact of the introduction of casino gambling to Jamaica.

Arnie Wexler, who served for eight years in New Jersey as the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling, is not opposed to the Government’s decision to give the green light for casinos, but he is imploring the authorities to put in place measures to tackle a major danger. Wexler fears more Jamaicans could become hooked on gambling.

But that is a concern not at the front of the minds of officials of Celebration Jamaica, one of the two entities already granted a licence to operate a casino in Jamaica.

Dennis Constanzo, local head of the development company, is instead focused on the 12,000 direct jobs to be created and the hundreds of additional tourists which Celebration Jamaica will attract to the island. According to Constanzo, the casino represents only 15 per cent of its USD 1.8-billion investment in a 65-acre development.

Big bucks needed

The possibility of casinos leading more Jamaicans to gambling is also not on the front burner for Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett. He says, while Jamaicans will be allowed to take their chance in casinos, only persons of a certain socio-economic status will be able to afford the big bucks needed to sit at gaming tables.

„I do not envisage the average Jamaican running into a casino. It’s not lottery; it is a different type of facility which, by itself, is intimidatory to the budgeted pocket,“ Bartlett tells The Sunday Gleaner.

But Wexler, a former compulsive gambler who has spent the last 30 years counselling persons about the dangers of this addiction, is not convinced. He admits that for millions of people, gambling offers a harmless and entertaining diversion from everyday life.

„Whether playing bingo or baccarat, these people are participating in a legitimate and time-honoured recreational activity by taking a chance on an unpredictable event in the hope of winning,“ Wexler adds. He says 75 per cent of people who gamble do it for enjoyment and entertainment.

Dangerous experience

But Wexler warns: „The simple act of placing a bet is a dangerous experience.

„What seems a moment of elation or excitement for some gamblers is, in reality, a moment of overwhelming compulsion – a moment in which these people have lost the ability to control their gambling behaviour.

„Problem gamblers,“ he says, „make up about 20 per cent, while the others are compulsive gamblers. Their gambling behaviour compromises, disrupts or damages personal, family or vocational pursuits.“

Wexler argues that many people who work in the gaming industry are vulnerable to becoming compulsive gamblers.

„Some are naturally attracted to the action, because they already have a gambling problem, while others develop a problem after being exposed to the environment.“

Treatable illness

He says compulsive gambling is a treatable illness and the Jamaican Government needs to ensure that persons employed in casinos are properly trained to resist the lure of gambling.

Wexler started gambling before he was 10 years old and by 14, was placing bets with bookmakers. By 17, he was stealing to pay for his gambling habit, and continued until he owed 32 persons a combined amount equal to his full salary for three years.

He says after 24 years as a gambler, he sought help and has spent the last 40 years without placing a bet.