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DHS news release

Feb. 1, 2006

Alcohol and drug free may not be risk free; caution needs to be taken with school-funded casino nights


This guest opinion appeared in the February 2006 issue of ORHealth magazine.

By Jeff Marotta

February may seem a long time away from high-school commencement, but many schools and parent groups are already thinking about safe teen activities for graduation night.

For years, a favorite has been the casino night. And if you told moms and dads that it might be a bad idea, they would probably look puzzled.

I received a letter from a rural high school seeking financial support for an alcohol- and drug-free casino night. The alcohol- and drug-free part of the graduation activity sounded great.

But schools and parents endorsing casino nights points out our blindness to the risks associated with gambling.

That's because gambling has entered our mainstream culture as an entertaining, fun and harmless activity, which, indeed, it can be. I don't think gambling is inherently bad, immoral or without some good. But most people don't understand that gambling carries serious risks.

About one in 16 people who gamble will develop a gambling problem sooner or later. Like alcohol use, the younger people start and the more frequently they use, the greater their chances of getting hooked.

It's a hidden problem among our high school students. We hear about the challenges kids have saying "no" to drugs, violence and sex. But what about gambling?

In a 1,000-student Oregon high school, an estimated 41 students are problem or pathological gamblers. And fully 110 of the students are at high risk of developing gambling problems. Like other problem behaviors, we need to send messages that support healthy choices.

Oregonians have what is known as "convenience gambling," with more than 10,000 video-poker machines, nine tribal casinos and a popular lottery.

Casino nights threaten to worsen the odds of addiction by sending the message that if the school is organizing the activity, it must be safe and healthy for kids.

I remember a phone call from two high school seniors who were writing papers about gambling and teens. They disclosed that their freshman and sophomore social lives were mostly video games, playing sports and hanging out. Now, they said, they're mostly Texas Hold 'Em with stakes of $1 to $20. They told about a friend who spent his entire spring vacation playing online poker.

As responsible adults, we have an obligation to educate our kids about the risks of gambling, tobacco, alcohol, drugs and other addictions. Consider: Among Oregon adults coming into gambling-addiction treatment, the average debt exceeds $23,000, nearly one in four committed a crime to get gambling money, and 6 percent attempted suicide.

Nevertheless, you might still want to go ahead with your casino night. After all, it's been successful in attracting teens to what seemed a wholesome alcohol- and drug-free activity.

If so, then consider setting up a booth with brochures, videos and interactive computer CDs –- describing the odds, illustrating general and personal risks, and dispelling gambling myths (such as that a "near miss" on a slot machine suggests that a winning pull may be close).

My office can provide the teen-friendly brochures, videos and interactive CDs to your school, paid for by the Oregon Lottery. You can contact me at Jeffrey.j.marotta@state.or.us or by phone at (503) 945-9709.

Would people who have seen problem gambling's negative outcomes recommend a school casino night? Absolutely not. But if the Class of 2006 is going to have such a night, then let's increase our graduates' odds of making informed and responsible choices.

Jeff Marotta, Ph.D., is problem gambling services manager in the Oregon Department of Human Services.