Edward Looney, Executive Director
Council On Compulsive Gambling of NJ
New Jersey's Gambling Helpline

By Edward Looney

As we gather together to look back over the past year and plan for the coming one, I'm going to ask each of you to think about a special group of people who are as vulnerable to the devastating effects of compulsive gambling as we are - the one million youngsters living in our state. And about something we should be doing for each and every one of them.

Let me tell you a story about one of them. A few years ago, a young woman named Deborah gained widespread attention in New Jersey and even nationally. Her story and her picture were featured in quite a number of newspapers across the state, and she made the evening news in New York and Philadelphia.

But Debbie's few minutes of fame were not what any of us would wish for ourselves or, heaven forbid, our children. And that's what Debbie was - a child, still in high school. The terrible problem that landed her in the paper was not kid's stuff. Debbie was in real grownup trouble. She was a compulsive gambler.

That year, Debbie was one of the thousands of kids pulled off the casino floors in Atlantic City. Last year, an astonishing 160,000 teenagers were stopped at the doors. Another 39,000 made it to the floor, but were removed. Who knows how many thousands never were recognized as children and started on the road to problem gambling?

And it isn't just the youngsters who can get to a casino who gamble. Just like the adults, they bet at the card table, the racetrack and the lottery machine. And just like adults, they lose control of their gambling and begin to experience real trouble.

We have known for a long time that children are not immune to the pull of addictive substances like drugs and alcohol. What we need to recognize is that they are not immune to the lure of the action and excitement of gambling.

You may be shocked to learn that in a recent survey of 900 New Jersey high school juniors and seniors, a full 30 percent told us they place a bet at least once a week, either at cards, the casinos, the track, on sports or the lottery. Almost one third!

We believe that about four percent of those actually fit the profile of the compulsive gambler - approximately the same proportion as in the adult population.

Most disturbing were the 55 or so kids who said they borrowed to gamble, and the 30 or so who actually stole from other people to keep up their habit.

And what about the countless other children living with a parent or other family member who gambles? They are carried right along with the gambler through the fear and shame and the frightening personal, financial and legal problems.

What more do we need to hear from our youngsters to convince us that they need to learn about the dangers of compulsive gambling and to be given help when it does affect their lives?

Our work this year must include promoting an awareness that compulsive gambling can have the most damaging effect on the most vulnerable amount - us. And the place to bring that message is our schools.

We've made so much progress in educating our children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. But as good as our schools are, there is virtually o information provided to school-aged children on gambling, compulsive gambling and treatment and referral services.

It's time to group compulsive gambling in with the other life-threatening addictions included in health and family life curriculums in our public schools. It should be in text books and support materials used across the state.

Kids need be hearing about the dangers of compulsive gambling from the earliest grades. Whether they are to begin the destructive behavior of compulsive gambling themselves, or to suffer along with an adult family member who gambles, they need our help.

There is no time to lose. Educators and the entire education system need to become partners with us in the fight against compulsive gambling.

Maybe it's a hackneyed phrase, but in this case it bears repeating: Our children are our most precious resource. Let's not let drugs, alcohol or compulsive gambling steal from them the good that life has to offer.

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