Psychiatrists: Impacts of gambling are already present in Alaska

Posted: Monday, May 12, 2003

KENAI - Alaska may not have racetracks and casinos, but the state isn't free of the social impacts of gambling, say psychiatrists who study gamblers' behavior.

Municipalities and nonprofit organizations can run bingo parlors, sell pull-tabs or hawk lottery tickets on such natural events as breakup on the Tanana River. Such activities may seem innocuous, but betting, periodically reinforced by winning, can grow to pathological addiction for some.

In Alaska, the rate of addiction to gambling may be higher than it is nationally, said Dr. Charles Burgess, medical director of the Homer Community Mental Health Center and former head of the Department of Psychiatry at Providence Hospital.

Nationally, about 1 percent of Americans meet the definition of a pathological gambler. A further 2 percent are problem gamblers whose symptoms are less severe, but still have a big impact on their lives, psychiatrists say.

"The percentage is higher in Alaska because of the wide availability of pull-tabs, and no one is paying attention," Burgess said. "It is culturally accepted, especially in the lower-income population, to go and spend money on pull-tabs."

The affliction can strike across all levels of society, as shown by the recent revelations about the gambling activity of former U.S. education secretary William Bennett.

Unlike alcohol or drug addictions, where friends and family members often detect problems early on, a gambling addiction can be a silent predator, Burgess said. In Bennett's case, he lost up to $8 million, yet his wife said she was unaware of the situation.

"I've had gambling patients for whom the stories are horrendous," Burgess said.

Alaska's most ubiquitous form of gaming, the pull-tab, are not welcome everywhere.

In McGrath, pull-tabs have been banned since the early 1990s. Prior to the ban, a public radio station there supported its operations with bingo and pull-tabs.

"In a town of about 500, we were netting about $100,000 a year from a one-night-a-week bingo game in the city hall," said former station manager Will Peterson, now of Anchorage.

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