Compulsive gamblers can self-ban; expert calls the idea ‘almost worthless’

Budget & Tax

Mike Brake | December 20, 2019

Compulsive gamblers can self-ban; expert calls the idea ‘almost worthless’

Mike Brake

It’s an all-too-common headline: in June of 2018, an accountant employed by an Oklahoma City company entered a guilty plea in federal court to embezzling almost $400,000. The money had come from company credit cards and flowed into the coffers of tribal casinos. Before he headed off to serve 19 months in prison and begin restitution payments of more than $393,000, the man’s lawyer accurately blamed “his gambling addiction.”

But had he voluntarily excluded himself from those casinos under an Oklahoma program, that man might be free today, and his employers would not have been counting their losses.

Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, cites studies that show that half of the profits from commercial gambling come from addicted gamblers.

The voluntary self-exclusion program sponsored by the Oklahoma Association on Problem and Compulsive Gambling (OAPCG), and similar programs sponsored by a number of individual tribes, allows those with a gambling addiction to ban themselves from participating tribal gambling establishments for one, three, five, or 10 years. If they succumb to their urge to gamble they can be asked to leave for trespassing, and should they win at any of the casino games, the tribes have agreed not to pay those winnings.

However, one expert on the negative impact of commercial gambling says programs like the self-exclusion list are “almost worthless,” given the pervasive extent of addictive gambling behavior of the kind that led the Oklahoma accountant to federal prison.

“The definition of addiction is loss of free will,” said Les Bernal, national director of the organization Stop Predatory Gambling. “Not many of them are going to voluntarily walk into a casino and put their names on a list.”

OAPCG officials take no position on gambling and continue to promote the self-exclusion effort.

“We have 17 tribes participating in the statewide self-exclusion program,” said OAPCG executive director Dr. Wiley Harwell. That means that as many as 14 tribes do not, although Harwell said all of the compacts governing tribal gambling require tribes to implement some form of self-exclusion program. The advantage of the statewide OAPCG program is that all participating casinos can quickly check a jackpot winner’s name against the statewide database to see if they are listed.

Harwell said OAPCG currently has just over 2,000 names on its self-exclusion list, but he noted that “at least several thousand” would be eligible for the program due to a gambling addiction. An OAPCG study recently showed that 3.2 percent of adult Oklahomans show signs of a gambling disorder, which is almost twice the national average.

“We have 132 casinos so there is one within at least fifty miles of everyone in Oklahoma,” Harwell said, suggesting that proximity and the wide proliferation of tribal gambling are worse here than in most states.

The organization, which is partly funded by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, also provides posters, literature, and even casino employee training material advertising the gambling addiction hotline and the benefits of the self-exclusion program.

Bernal said self-exclusion programs “give the impression that people are doing something about gambling addiction. In reality, it is part of the con that commercial gambling represents.” He cites studies that show that half of the profits from commercial gambling come from addicted gamblers, which would indicate that the 2,000 people on the OAPCG list are just a tiny fraction of those with a serious gambling problem.

In addition, only about half of the tribes operating gambling enterprises even participate in the statewide list, Harwell said.

While the tribes participating in the list include some of the largest casino operators, Harwell said those that do not and prefer to maintain their own single-site self-exclusion list simply don’t have access to the broader and more effective statewide list.

Statewide participating tribes include Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Comanches, Seminoles, and Shawnees. The tribes that are listed as members of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association but do not participate in the statewide OAPCG self-exclusion program are the Eastern Shawnees, Wichitas, Cheyenne-Arapahos, Fort Sill Apaches, Kickapoos, Sac and Foxes, Miamis, Pawnees, Osages, Peorias, Ottawas, Wyandottes, and Quapaws.

Harwell said there is no way to verify that all of those tribes maintain their own self-exclusion lists, although according to compact rules “they are supposed to.”

A sampling of tribal gambling operations that are not participants in the OAPCG self-exclusion program shows that they take slightly different pathways to meet the compact requirement.

Charlie Welbourne of the Cheyenne-Arapaho operation said their casinos offer a “self-ban” of 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, six months, or a maximum of five years. If anyone on the site-maintained list appears at the casino, “we politely ask them to leave,” he said.

Arthur Attocknie of the Pawnee tribe said his organization’s casinos maintain their own self-ban list with potential bans of three or six months, one year, or a lifetime. He said the Pawnee tribe has considered adopting the OAPCG list.

“We have quite a few on our list,” he said, noting that his casino employees are trained to recognize the symptoms of addicted or compulsive gambling. He said the overall issue of gambling addiction meshes with the broader topic of other addictions, including drugs, and how society can address them.

Bernal said no matter who maintains the list, its primary flaw is that it “puts the spotlight on the citizens, not on the commercial gambling enterprise that is the problem.”

Mike Brake

Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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