Gambling addictions raise some tough questions with very personal answers

One man’s personal experience can change an entire industry. Case in point: Phil Satre.

Twenty years ago, while Satre was president and CEO of Harrah’s gaming division, he found three personal experiences disturbing.

He learned the mother of a friend in Reno was going on gambling binges for three or four days at a time. Ultimately, the mother’s uncontrollable desire to gamble resulted in her decision to move to a state where legal gambling wasn’t so easily accessible.

Another experience involved a Harrah’s customer, a businessman from Southern California who became self-destructive and even attempted suicide.

About this same time, in Atlantic City, Debra Kim Cohen, a teenage beauty queen, daughter of a police detective, began stealing from her family to support a gambling addiction. Over the years, Harrah’s became involved, comping the underage girl with suites and giving her a line of credit.

The ugly side of problem gaming was disturbing to Satre, now 58, who headed the company’s gaming division from 1984 until his retirement in 2005. It wasn’t just some anonymous loser. It was personal.

In 1987, problem gambling was under the radar in Nevada. There was a shortage of serious research on the subject. So Satre asked his own company to fund a study. The results were Operation Bet Smart and Project 21, the first programs to train employees to recognize pathological and underage gamblers.

Others in his industry were less than thrilled. Why was he pointing out problems the gaming industry didn’t want highlighted? Others feared Satre was going to harm the business if he kept beating this unpopular drum about problem gambling and the gaming industry’s responsibility.

“I was too naive,” Satre said Monday, recalling the rousing support he didn’t receive. “I wrote a letter to my colleagues and received not one response.”

But by the mid-1990s, as riverboat gambling spread to Middle America, the industry began to be pressured for assurances that problem gambling would be addressed. Soon, everyone was on board with the idea that gambling companies needed to train employees to recognize individuals with gambling addictions.

Serious research was under way. In 2000, to protect themselves from the accusation that the industry-funded studies were tainted like tobacco studies, the industry connected with Harvard Medical School for serious research. The goal was to research problem gambling the same way alcohol and drug addictions are studied.

Because of Satre’s original efforts, Harrah’s is recognized as a leader in the gaming industry for what is now called “responsible gaming.”

Today, Satre chairs the National Center for Responsible Gaming (www.ncrg.org), while fending off efforts by Democrats to persuade him to run for governor. Is that door closed?

“I think it’s all but closed,” Satre said, leaving himself just a little wiggle room.

His name comes up as a potential candidate for political office year after year, much like Kenny Guinn’s name did. Guinn finally ran for governor without any prior political experience and won. Many think Satre has the same potential, with a similar likability factor and interest in public policy, but with better communication skills.

But Monday, Satre didn’t want to talk politics; he wanted to talk about the $7.6 million in additional funding the gaming industry raised for more academic research.

Are gambling problems like alcohol? If you have an addiction, do you have to give it up entirely? (The prevailing thought today is that problem gamblers can’t successfully return to controlled gambling.) Does easy access to credit encourage problem gamblers? Should underage gamblers be prosecuted legally or face other consequences? What makes someone a gambling addict? Can they beat it? Does age or ethnic background make a difference?

With the spread of gambling worldwide, researchers eventually would have taken an interest in answering these questions. But helping pathological gamblers has come a long ways since the early days when casinos would post a few signs saying if you have a gambling problem, here’s a number to call.

Phil Satre made the process move faster by what he saw in Reno and Atlantic City 20 years ago when he was in his 30s.

He’s been asked whether his interest in problem gambling was little more than a public relations move.

Actually, as he said repeatedly, it was personal.

A friend’s mom. A self-destructive customer. And a teenage girl. All three pathological gamblers.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0275.

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