Expert says gambling compacts need to better address addiction

August 7, 2019

Ray Carter

The debate over renegotiation of Oklahoma’s gaming compacts with tribal governments has centered on the rates paid by tribes and the impact of renegotiation on state-tribal relations. But some officials say those discussions are overlooking another important factor.

“In all of this conversation, no one has mentioned problem gambling,” said Wiley Harwell, a licensed professional counselor who is executive director of the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling.

If the compacts are renegotiated, which Harwell concedes may not happen, his organization believes several issues related to compulsive gambling and addiction need to be addressed.

For one thing, the group would like the state to dedicate more money to problem gambling. In 2018, Oklahoma government received $139 million from exclusivity fees for casinos, and that figure is expected to hit $149 million this year, Harwell said. Just $250,000 of that total goes to the treatment of problem gambling, or roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s share of casino revenue—and the state’s share itself is only a small fraction of total gambling revenue in Oklahoma.

The $250,000 figure has not been adjusted as casino gambling has exploded over the last 15 years.

While another $750,000 in lottery proceeds is dedicated to gambling treatment, Harwell said the combined amount is insufficient.

“There’s $1 million total, but we need twice that to help all the people in Oklahoma that need help,” Harwell said.

In particular, he said more money is needed to advertise the availability of treatment options for those with compulsive gambling behaviors.

“People don’t know how to get help, because we don’t have any money to promote that kind of billboard or TV or radio campaigns,” Harwell said. “That’s too expensive. We can’t do it.”

Since 2009, the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling has run a statewide self-exclusion program that, in cooperation with participating tribes, allows problem gamblers to ban themselves from multiple casinos with just one request. Under that program, Harwell said someone in the Tulsa area doesn’t have to “go to the Creek Nation, the Cherokee Nation, and the Osage Nation all three and separately self-exclude. They can fill out one form.”

But just 17 of 32 Oklahoma tribes that operate casinos participate. Harwell said his organization would like for participation to be made mandatory.

Under existing agreements, officials at tribal casinos are required to train casino employees on the science and symptoms of problem gambling and confront patrons who appear to have a problem. Casinos are also required to have posters and brochures available to point problem gamblers to treatment. And they are required to run a self-exclusion program for problem gamblers.

While Harwell’s group supports those requirements, he said state-tribal agreements could be strengthened in that area.

“There is no enforcement or really much observation, even, if the entities, the tribes or the casinos, are following the guidelines that are there,” Harwell said.

Harwell said his organization is “gaming neutral” and doesn’t “take a stance for or against gambling; we’re simply here to help those that have a problem.” But other groups who deal with gambling addiction say the debate over renegotiating Oklahoma’s gaming compacts offers a chance to review whether legalized casinos have been beneficial at all.

“Has commercialized gambling delivered?” asked Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, which opposes state promotion of gambling. “And the answer, overwhelmingly, is it’s been a massive failure for the people of Oklahoma. The folks that have won from this gambling policy are the people that run the casinos and run the lottery games. Those are the winners.”

He noted casino gambling was legalized in Oklahoma based on a promise that the associated state revenue “was supposed to fund education in Oklahoma.” Yet, despite a reported $1.4 billion in cumulative casino payments to the state since 2004, Oklahoma teachers still staged a massive walkout in 2018 that generated negative, nationwide publicity for Oklahoma.

“Where’s all that money gone?” Bernal said. “It hasn’t gone to benefit the people of Oklahoma. It hasn’t gone to benefit the teachers of Oklahoma. It certainly hasn’t gone to benefit the students and their families of Oklahoma. The only winners in this are the people that run the gambling games. And that’s not just true for Oklahoma. That’s true for all across the country, but Oklahoma is really kind of a living, breathing example of how much commercialized gambling has failed as a public policy.”

Because Oklahoma is home to more than 100 casinos, it is also home to more problem gamblers than most states with all the associated societal problems and taxpayer expenses involved.

Nationally, it’s estimated that 2 percent of the adult population has a gambling problem, but a 2016 study in Oklahoma found 3.2 percent of state residents had a gambling problem.

Harwell noted that 1,900 individuals have used his association’s statewide self-exclusion program, and estimated perhaps 2,000 more individuals have used tribe-specific exclusion plans. (A substantial number of those requests have come from Texas residents, so those figures are not Oklahoma-specific.)

But he said research suggests just 10 percent of those with a gambling problem ever seek treatment, so the number of problem gamblers in Oklahoma who need help may be even greater.

“What happens is people that have a problem, they stop gambling for a period of time—because they run out of money, they get in financial trouble, whatever—they recover, and then they start gambling again,” Harwell said. “So it’s very cyclical.”

Bernal called commercialized gambling “a form of fraud” because, unlike other businesses, the transaction between provider and customer is not mutually beneficial.

“Instead of helping people build assets, we’re putting people deeper into debt,” Bernal said. “You’re worsening financial opportunity.”