BANGOR, Maine — A moustachioed, beret-wearing lobster named “Clawd” is touring Bangor this week alongside his bilingual handler dressed like a chef to promote responsible gambling. Meanwhile, the state doesn’t know how big a problem irresponsible gambling is, according to the person responsible for overseeing the state’s addiction prevention efforts.
Hollywood Casino’s weeklong lobster promotion is part of Responsible Gaming Education Week, an annual event created by the American Gaming Association to increase awareness in the industry and among patrons about gambling addiction.
“We don’t have any prevalence data for how big a problem there is in Maine,” Christine Theriault, prevention team manager for the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, said Tuesday.
In 2010, when the state Legislature was trying to determine how much it wanted to spend on gambling addiction services, some lawmakers cited a 2009 report from the National Council on Problem Gambling that said more than 1,200 calls were made that year from Maine to the council’s national helpline. Other lawmakers previously argued that because no one had sought assistance for gambling addiction from the state’s 211 helpline in 2010, there was not a demonstrated need for more aid in Maine.
The state decided then that a $50,000 allocation, originating from Hollywood Casino revenues, would be enough to fund gambling addiction treatment programs and education efforts in the state. This year, that amount increased to $100,000 under state statute.
Three years after legislators addressed problem gambling, Maine’s gaming industry looks much different. A second casino has been built in Oxford and Hollywood Casino has expanded to add table games. There are more opportunities and options for people to gamble.
Maine has yet to conduct its own prevalence study on how many residents are problem or pathological gamblers, an effort that likely would cost in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Theriault.
The National Council on Problem Gambling, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., defines problem gambling as “the urge to gamble despite harmful negative consequences or a desire to stop.” It defines pathological gambling as when a person gambles compulsively “to such an extent that the wagering has a severe negative effect on his or her job, relationships, mental health or other important aspects of life.”
The NCPG says about 1 percent of Americans meet the criteria of being a pathological gambler in a given year and another 2-3 percent are problem gamblers.
Despite the fact that there are two casinos in Maine, only one is funding the state’s gambling addiction treatment efforts, according to Patrick Fleming, executive director of the Maine Gambling Control Board.
Under statute, both casinos pay a percentage of their slots and table games revenue into the state’s general fund. Hollywood Casino is required to pay 4 percent of its net slots revenues — in 2012 that worked out to roughly $2.25 million — into the general fund for the gambling board’s administrative expenses and gambling addiction services. Of the casino’s net revenue from table games, 9 percent — about $743,000 from March 2012 to March 2013 — went into the general fund for the same purposes.
State statute requires that $100,000 of the slots revenue money Hollywood Slots puts into the general fund be used to fund gambling addiction services. Oxford Casino doesn’t carry that same stipulation.
Oxford Casino puts 3 percent of its net slots revenue — which worked out to roughly $1.75 million in the casino’s first 12 months of operations since June 2012 — into the general fund. It also put 3 percent of its net table games revenue, another $396,000, into the general fund.
State law says that agencies can request money from the general fund for the purposes of gambling addiction services, according to Fleming, but Substance Abuse Services hasn’t sought more than the $100,000 set aside from Hollywood Casino.
Since 2010, the Office of Substance Abuse has spent its problem gambling funding “down to the penny,” according to Theriault.
“We’re being very methodical about how we spend our money,” she said.
From 2010 to 2012, most of the money was spent on campaigns to promote gambling addiction services and raise awareness, according to Theriault. For example, casinos have cocktail napkins with information about problem gambling and phone numbers for services printed on them, Theriault said.
In January, the agency pumped the remainder of its funds from the previous fiscal year — about $5,000 — into funding for a pair of pilot treatment sites for problem gamblers, Theriault said. Those sites are Wellspring Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services in Bangor and Merrimack River Medical Services in Portland. Those pilot programs are still screening potential clients and haven’t yet treated them, Theriault said.
With the doubling of funding from $50,000 to $100,000 this year, Substance Abuse Services will continue to push those pilot treatment programs and start a campaign to target young men and women struggling with gambling problems, she said.
Marvin Gallaway, a licensed problem gambling counselor, hosts Gamblers Anonymous meetings at 6 p.m. every Thursday at Bangor Area Recovery Network, 142 Center St. in Brewer. Attendance is typically low, he said, but it’s likely because few people know about the offering. He said he believes that in a state with two casinos, there are many gamblers with problems who aren’t sure where to look.
“They get addicted to the chemical [release of dopamine],” Gallaway said. “They can be losing all the time and they hit it just once and they get hooked.”
Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that allows humans to feel and anticipate pleasure.
“They’re losing all this money to try to make money. It’s a serious addiction,” he said.
Gambling addiction often runs in line with other addictions, such as alcohol or drug abuse, according to Gallaway.
That’s another reason the state has trouble pinning down the exact number of people in Maine being treated for gambling addiction, according to Theriault, because they’re often being treated for that while being treated for a primary addiction, such as alcoholism.
Gallaway said he sometimes advises people with gambling addictions to snap a rubber band against their wrists when they feel an urge to gamble, using pain to stem the dopamine rush to the brain. He also urges people to participate in “cognitive behavioral therapy,” in other words, thinking carefully about how we feel about the actions we take.
Several Bangor-area residents have been charged with crimes they committed while trying to fuel their gambling addictions, according to Bangor Daily News archives.
In 2011, Holden resident Tammy Barker was sentenced to 3½ years in prison for stealing $300,000 from mobile home sales to spend at what was then Hollywood Slots.
In 2012, Angela Amy Curtis, then 26, of Bangor was sentenced to 3½ years in prison for stealing mail in seven area communities in search of checks and credit cards, which she said she used to fuel drug and gambling addictions.
Gamblers who recognize they have a problem and decide they don’t want to gamble can contact the casino and ask that he or she be added to a no-admittance list for anywhere from a year to the rest of his or her life. John Osborne, general manager of the casino, said the facility staff strictly enforce that list.
Responsible Gaming Education Week events wrap up Friday with an International event in Hollywood Casino that runs 2-5 p.m. in the expo hall. Seven stations representing different countries will be set up, where patrons and employees will be asked to recite phrases about responsible gaming in the languages of those countries. Participants will have “passports” stamped to document their “trip” to each table, and once completed the passport holder will be entered to win prizes, according to casino officials.
The Bangor casino is using the lobster and chef characters to “embrace the diversity of our patrons. No matter what language you speak, we should all speak about responsible gaming,” said director of finance John Gibboni.
Penn National Gaming is holding a contest among its more than 20 casinos nationwide to see which comes up with the most original or best idea for promoting Responsible Gaming Education Week, according to Gibboni. The winning casino takes home a cash prize and bragging rights, he said.
Oxford Casino is also holding events and training sessions for its employees to promote responsible gambling, according to director of marketing Matt Gallagher.
For more information on problem gaming and resources avaialable in Maine and elsewhere, visit www.maine.gov/dhhs/samhs/osa/help/gambling/index.htm. The National Council on Problem Gaming has a 24-hour national helpline, 800-522-4700. The state has its own helpline, which can be reached by dialing 211.