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Treating gambling addiction as an illness in Las Vegas

March was National Problem Gambling Awareness Month, but every month sees people struggling with the addiction.

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that more than 80 percent of Americans gamble every year and 3 to 5 percent of Americans have a gambling problem.


Southern Highlands resident Ted Hartwell can relate. He was introduced to gambling in his childhood while growing up in Lubbock, Texas. His father, a university professor, had a penchant for betting, and family vacations took them to Ruidoso Downs Race Track in New Mexico.

“€œWe’€™d camp in the mountains outside town, which I thought was cool, but in retrospect, it was so my father saved (on hotels) to gamble at the track,”€ he said. “€œHe would give each of us kids $20 or so to gamble. We’€™d choose our horses. He’d place the bets.”

Hartwell’s father taught him to play poker, and by his late teens, he was a regular at a weekly poker game. While pursuing his anthropology degree, he continued dabbling in poker. Pots could climb to hundreds of dollars.

“At this point, I still had complete control over my gambling,”€ Hartwell said. “€œI recall losing the whole $100 stake that I’d brought to the game on the very first hand, and I left.”€

In 1991, he moved to Las Vegas and, within a few years, gravitated to the video poker machines and began using gambling as an escape. He hit two jackpots, each about $1,000, and with them, “something changed.”

Hartwell began using credit card convenience checks and then payday loans to hide his gambling from his wife. He paid the household bills, so he could juggle things to hide his spending. He tried to quit many times but said the illness was hard to shake.

Problem gamblers are often the last to recognize what is happening. When they keep losing money, some tell themselves that they just need to bet “smarter” when they gamble.

“Afterward,” said Hartwell, “you go, ‘€˜What have I done?’€™ And then you go, ‘How soon can I go out and do it again?’ “€

By 2006, he was $30,000 in debt. In 2007, his wife checked their finances and was aghast to learn what he’€™d done. He was nearly $80,000 in debt by then.

“She had every right to leave me, but she didn’€™t,”€ Hartwell said.

Eventually, he found a counselor who specialized in gambling addiction and also went through a six-week intensive outpatient program at the Problem Gambling Center, 2680 S. Jones Blvd., which required nearly three hours of his time each day for four days a week.

On Sept. 14, 2007, he placed his last bet. He turned to volunteerism and now works with the Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children program and administers a youth gambling awareness program called Given the Chance, developed by the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling for middle and high school students. He also advocates for public education and awareness of problem gambling.

Hartwell estimated he lost between $150,000 and $200,000 during his gambling years.


Psychologist Dr. Robert Hunter has been helping addicted gamblers since 1986 and oversees the Problem Gambling Center, which he founded in 1998. The nonprofit is supported by the gaming industry. Hunter said many of his clients are addicted to slot machines.

“€œThe roots of this (facility) are very significant; they come from Dr. Robert Custer,” Hunter said. “He was on the team that proved alcohol addiction was a biological condition back in the ’50s and ’60s. He was the first doctor to look at addiction as an actual disease with a biological root. … In the ’70s, the problem gambler was (seen as) a sociopath, a personality disorder having to do with criminal personality. Thanks to Custer and others in the field, we know that this is an illness with a biological component.

“It turned out he was freakishly ahead of his time. Custer trained me that this was an illness that was going to turn out to have a biological root like alcoholism. He predicted that in the ’80s. It was like Nostradamus stuff; we didn’€™t even have the equipment yet to measure (the brain’s response), and he was predicting it was in the midbrain.”

Programs to address the illness have evolved from a hospital model to an outpatient one. Most consist of six weeks of daily intensive counseling, followed by a year of weekly sessions. Hunter holds such a program at the Las Vegas offices. For more information, call 702-363-0290.

The Problem Gambling Center sees approximately 350 people annually. The outpatient program runs Monday through Thursday, with morning and evening classes. The state-funded program also treats family, friends and concerned others. Clinic manager Lori Flores said the staff knows just what attendees are going through.

“Many of us are recovering ourselves,” she said.


View sat in on a session. Like Alcoholics Anonymous groups, each person relays how long he’s been in recovery and the date that he last gambled. This day, there were a handful of people. One woman hadn’€™t made a bet in a year and said she had more peace in her life. She said she was able to go to a casino to have a meal and not experience a panic attack or be overwhelmed by the desire to gamble.

A man said he was taking things one day at a time so he didn’t slip back. He said the hardest part had been forgiving himself for all the problems his addiction had caused.

“€œI like myself again,”€ he said.

Another man called the program the best thing that had ever happened to him. “€œI realized the only person who could fix this was me,”€ he said.

Hunter said the D2 receptors of the midbrain are different in the brains of the 6 percent of the population with a gambling addiction.

“When you gamble,” he told the attendees, “€œyou get a burst of pleasure from the dopamine (being released). At the level you guys experience, you go … to anesthesia land. Shutting down your feelings is really the payoff. It has nothing to do with fun, excitement — nothing to do with money. It’€™s got to do with escape. If you and I went gambling tomorrow, and we were hooked up to machines for brain scans, a … 6-year-old could tell the differences in our brains. So, this is a blue eyes-brown eyes thing. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it.”

He said the treatment is similar to that for those addicted to drugs or alcohol and works from an abstinence model. He said the camaraderie attendees find at the sessions also helps them turn away from gambling.

The Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, 5552 S. Fort Apache Road, Suite 100, is a nonprofit information and referral agency whose efforts address the impact of problem gambling on residents. Incorporated in 1984, the council serves as an advocate, an information resource and a provider of programs and services. It hosts a 24-hour Problem Gamblers Helpline at 800-522-4700.


From 1931-1960, Nevada was the only state with legalized gambling. Outside of Nevada, gambling was limited to charity bingo and horse and dog racing. By 2001, 35 states had off-track betting, 42 had interstate track betting, 38 had lotteries and 26 had casinos.

The Nevada Legislature requires hotel-casinos to have print information available to guests on problem gambling.

Since Las Vegas seemingly has a casino on every corner, does that mean everyone is tempted to be a gambler?

“The majority of people gamble socially. Here in Nevada, we estimate about 6 percent of adults have a gambling problem,”€ said Carol O’€™Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. “Social gamblers set limits and stick to those limits. They decide how much time and how much money they’€™re going to spend and don’€™t gamble at times when they have other responsibilities. If you set those limits and stick to those limits, then it’€™s just entertainment.

“For problem gamblers, it’s a different experience. Problem gamblers are having an emotional experience … it’€™s a way to escape stress and cope, and when they gamble, something different happens in their brain than for other people.”


O’Hare speaks from experience. The mother of three was going through a divorce when she found video poker to be a way to escape her problems. Over time, she said she relied on it as her ‘hiding place,” but it became a vicious cycle.

“Gambling was the only way I knew to avoid stress, but when the money ran out, I’d just created more stress by losing money,” she said. “I was the hamster on the wheel. It’€™s a progressive disorder. At first, it was a couple days a week, then it got to where it was every day of the week.”

O’€™Hare got help when she lost her job, had an eviction notice on her door and became suicidal. She went to Gamblers Anonymous meetings, got help and hasn’€™t gambled since. Attending Gamblers Anonymous is free, she noted.

She agreed that brain chemistry determines whether someone gets addicted to something. If it’€™s brain chemistry, how can mere counseling circumvent that?

“The first focus of the counseling is to help the person to find ways to resist the urge,” O’€™Hare said. “€œIt involves cognitive behavioral therapy, recognizing what the triggers may be and techniques to resist the urge. They’€™re taught to delay until that urge goes away. Complementing that is doing good therapy work to learn about your own experience and learning what factors may have contributed to your own vulnerability. The way I describe it is, I have an “€˜on”€™ switch in my head, but I don’€™t have an “€˜off”€™ switch. That’€™s the difference in the (brain) wiring. The focus of treatment is how not to throw the switch and cope with life.”

In 2011, a study The Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., found that after age 21, problem gambling is more common in U.S. citizens than alcohol dependence. John W. Welte, Ph.D., the principal investigator at The Research Institute, found that gambling, frequent gambling and problem gambling increase in frequency during the teenage years and reach their highest level in the 20s and 30s before falling off among those 70 or older.

“Given what we found about the persistence of frequent and problem gambling through adulthood, increased prevention and intervention efforts are warranted,” Welte concluded.

Other results demonstrated that frequent gambling is twice as great among men (28 percent) as among women (13 percent). Men reach their highest rates of both gambling and frequent gambling in the late teens, while females take longer to reach their highest rates.

But there is good news: Researchers found that the percentage of people who said they’d “gambled in the past year” dropped to 76.9 percent in 2011-13, down from 82.2 percent in 1999-2000. Among respondents who gambled at least once in the past year, the average number of days on which they gambled were reduced, from 59.9 days per year in 1999-2000 to 53.7 days in 2011-13.

Frequent and problem gambling become more common as one’s socioeconomic status gets lower, researchers found, while gambling involvement tends to decline as it rises. Welte speculated that lower status Americans may pursue gambling as a way to make money, which was noted as a losing strategy.

Gamblers Anonymous is a free, 12-step support group for problem gamblers or any individuals who have a desire to stop gambling. Group meetings are also available for spouses, family members and friends of the problem gambler. Visit gamblersanonymous.org.

“It’s a long process,” O’€™Hare said. “€œIt’s not six sessions and you’€™ll never want to gamble again.”

To reach Summerlin Area View reporter Jan Hogan, email jhogan@viewnews.com or call 702-387-2949.

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