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Addiction Counselor Suggests Online Gambling is Less Addictive than Land Based Gambling...By Hartley Henderson

Recently I met with an old high school friend. He is now 45 years old and a certified addiction counselor. I asked if he has many clients that are problem gamblers and he stated that some of the clientele he counsels do have an addiction to gambling, although the majority he deals with are drug or alcohol dependent. The discussion turned to the recent findings of the Harvard Medical School which I wrote about many months back. The study, which looked at bettors who played poker and sports at Bwin, found that online bettors tended to be very controlled in their gambling and didn't demonstrate compulsive behaviour. I was expecting my friend to dismiss the findings, but instead he agreed and actually stated that in his professional opinion the online experience almost ensures that someone won't become addicted provided they have even the slightest amount of self control. I was compelled by the comment and asked if he would be open to an interview. He agreed on the grounds that I keep his name private to protect his clientele. He also made me stipulate that his opinions are simply that. His concern is that should his name ever become public knowledge he doesn't want his opinions to be misinterpreted as facts of an official study since he has never actually conducted one. The comments and expert opinion were far more important than his name, so I agreed to his stipulations.

The first thing I asked the counselor was for him to define the term addiction.

"The clinical definition of addiction is a substance or behaviour that controls the person and effectively makes the person powerless to stop [an activity] without intervention. There are 2 categories of addiction: substance addictions such as alcohol or drugs and process addictions such as gambling, sex, pornography and overeating. Substance addiction(s) [are] fairly [straight forward], but process addictions are certainly more complex. Just because someone is obese doesn't mean [that] they have an eating addiction, and someone who has sex frequently doesn't necessarily indicate [that] they are a sex addict. What makes it an addiction is the overwhelming urge to eat or have sex at times they know it's not necessary or right. Similarly, with gambling the need to gamble even at inopportune times makes it a problem. But with gambling there also needs to be a financial component to the activity for it to be deemed an addiction. A common misconception is that if someone gambles frequently they have a gambling problem. Nothing [could] be further from the truth. Many people gamble frequently as a form of entertainment, as a hobby or even as a profession. Gambling only becomes a problem when the person can't function normally without thinking about gambling or gambles with money he doesn't have. If someone maxes out their credit cards to gamble (or worse steals or begs for gambling money), they likely have an addiction."

I asked the counselor if he concurred that online gambling tends to be less addictive than land based gambling.

"Absolutely," the counselor replied. "Of the gambling addicts I've seen over the year(s) I can count on one hand the number who are addicted to internet betting. And to be truthful most of those bet both online and at land based casinos."

I asked the counselor if he could think of any reasons why this is the case and he answered without hesitation that it is the environment.

"When you bet online you are generally relaxed, in the comfort of your own home and anonymous. If you're losing it's easy to click off the game and find something else to do. At a casino the person has made the effort to get there and usually feels the need to justify the trip by betting what they have brought with them and often going to the bank for more. Just last month a client came to me after losing a week's salary in one night at racetrack slots and said that he was disgusted with himself because he kept betting even though he knew he needed to walk away. When I questioned why he didn't walk away he said the atmosphere of the casino enticed him to stay and bet more. Pretty waitresses were offering him drinks, people around him were engaging him in conversation and he was convinced the machine would pay out the big one at any time. What concerned me most was a comment that the first $200 he lost wasn't an issue with him because he went there to lose that money, but when he withdrew an additional thousand dollars from ATMs he knew he was over the top. Only people who go to brick and mortar casinos or the racetrack can say that they have come to lose what they bring. I can't think of anyone who goes online with several hundred dollars and says, 'I came to lose this.' It may be in their subconscious, but they certainly have an expectation or at least hope of winning. And without the attractions of [land based] casinos, it is easy to just walk away by shutting down the computer. I should also tell you this person was going to the racetrack slots at least every other day and is now heavily in debt."

I pointed out to the counselor that an American politician (John Kyl) referred to internet gambling as the crack cocaine of gambling, which refuted both his claims and those of the Harvard Medical School.

"I hate that term," the counselor replied. "I have heard video lottery terminals referred to as the crack cocaine of gambling; I have heard craps referred to as the crack cocaine of gambling; and I have heard scratch and win lottery tickets referred to as the crack cocaine of gambling. I have even heard of Starbucks referred to as the 'crack cocaine of coffee,'" the counselor laughed. "But the only person who would refer to anything other than the drug as 'the crack cocaine of'... knows nothing about crack cocaine. Of my clients, more than half are crack cocaine addicts. It's an ugly drug that ruins people's lives almost overnight. The extremely high dopamine levels that are produced by crack cocaine could never be reached by any form of gambling and the crash afterwards is nothing that any gambler could experience. Most of the people I counsel become addicted to crack cocaine in 4 or less uses of the drug. I don't know anyone who becomes addicted to any gambling activity after only 4 spins of the reel or roll of the dice. Besides, it makes absolutely no sense to refer to online activities as crack cocaine. As I mentioned, what makes casino wagering so tempting and compulsive is all the activity going on around the games themselves. People that play blackjack or craps often enjoy the interaction with the dealers and the chat with the other players. It often provides them a friendship they are lacking. Name one person who says they enjoy the company of the virtual online dealer?"

I asked the counselor if he viewed sports betting and/or poker as less addictive than other forms of gambling.

"All betting can lead to addiction, but sports betting is the least likely [to be addictive] because it doesn't provide instant gratification," the counselor replied. And he also was quick to point out he doesn't bet on games, so his opinions are not biased. "What makes an activity addictive is the quick fix. Crack cocaine or methamphetamine is so addictive because the high is achieved almost immediately. Slot machines are so addictive because in less than 5 seconds the person knows if he won or lost and the next game can be played immediately [there]after. With sports betting the person that wagers usually has to wait several hours for a result. This doesn't mean it's not possible to become addicted [to sports betting], but when someone takes the time to methodically determine who will win and then is willing to wait several hours to determine whether they won or not, it is generally...[not indicative]...of an addiction. Poker is a bit different. The slow play of poker and the amount of folding is often seen by poker players as a reason why it would not appeal to addicts, but as long as the gambler is always in the game they can get addicted. Furthermore, pots in poker can become very high. For that reason I think brick and mortar casinos or poker rooms are much more concerning to addiction counselors than internet play. Online, people can play within their means, but at a casino they may not be able to. Many online poker players are only too happy to play in 25 cent ante games online or in $5 buy in tournaments. At a brick and mortar casino you can't even buy into a table without having $200 in chips, and tournaments with less than a $300 buy in are very rare. To most people that is a lot of money, but $5 isn't."

I was a bit surprised by the response because I thought the main criteria for addiction was the amount of time spent on the activity and not the expenditure. "Isn't the concern the amount of time being spent playing rather than what is being spent?," I asked the counselor.

"Both are addiction indicators," the counselor replied, "but the expenditure is of particular importance in gambling. If a man takes $30 and uses it to go to a movie every other night, few would bat an eyelash. But if that same person took $30 and used it to play poker online every other night then a lot of counselors would deem [that] he has an addiction. I have a problem with that. If it's a form of entertainment, the person has a good job and salary and the $30 is just disposable income, then what difference does it make how...[he or she] spend(s) it? I believe that's what the Harvard Medical School study was pointing out when...[it]...said the average person only took $17 to the table... It's not a lot of money to most people, so to use it as a form of entertainment is fine. Most addicts wouldn't be satisfied with such a small expenditure and are always pushing the limits, such as the client I mentioned earlier who took out the limit at an ATM to continue playing slots. Naturally, if the person ignores his family, heads to the computer and locks the door to play only to emerge for dinner or a short break and does this frequently then he has a problem regardless of the amount bet. But I think that is far more the exception than the rule. You must remember that most people end up at addiction counseling because the activity [has] ruined their lives, and in the case of gambling that has generally occurred because they have ended up in debt they can't climb out of or have stolen money to fund their compulsive behaviour."

I asked the counselor if he would ever recommend to one of his clients to play online rather than at land based casinos if the client wasn't willing to quit gambling altogether.

"It would be irresponsible for me to suggest to anyone that the way to overcome a problem is to switch the method by which they gamble. [No] more than I would suggest to a person who is addicted to internet pornography that they can overcome it by purchasing "Hustler" magazine. I would never suggest to anyone with a gambling addiction that they can overcome it by switching the means by which they gamble. If someone is addicted they must stop the activity altogether to get their life back in order. However, if a friend or colleague told me they think they are gambling at the casinos too much, but didn't demonstrate addictive behaviour, I may indeed suggest they try the online experience and see if they can generate pleasure without the big risk. It's actually a good test too. If the person can wager a fraction of what they usually do and click off the program when they [have] had enough and find something else to occupy their time, it's probably just an indication that they are bored more so than addicted."

"But as an addiction counsellor aren't you obligated to get people away from gambling?," I asked the counselor.

"I'm not a preacher," the counselor responded. "I try to provide honest answers to people who believe they may have a problem. And if the person doesn't have an addiction or isn't prepared to give up the activity altogether it isn't my job to berate them. Everyone just wants a friend and understanding. I leave it to the church to tell people how to live their lives. I just provide them honesty, and if they have an addiction and need help I try to give them guidance to fight the addiction."

With that comment I ended the interview. Coming from this counselor, I truly believe now that online gambling is a far less harmful form of gambling than land based casinos. More importantly I have a new sense of respect for those in the addictions field. When I first found out my friend was an addictions counselor, my first instinct was to run away. But after hearing his arguments, his conviction and his honesty, I realized that there are indeed some people who just need honest answers and sometimes help to fight the demons within them.

Hartley Henderson

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