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Politics

Compulsive Gambling Council Says It's Getting a Bad Deal From Florida

November 1, 2011 - 7:00pm

Throwing some cold water on casino fever, the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling says the state isn't addressing the addiction problems it has now.

"It is not responsible policymaking to even consider expansion without taking steps to mitigate the current issues," FCCG executive director Pat Fowler told Sunshine State News.

The Council takes a "neutral position" on legalized gambling, Fowler said. "We don't get involved in the politics of it."

But the introduction of a casino-expansion bill by state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, has raised the stakes significantly.

Their legislation would authorize the licensing of up to three "destination" mega-resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. One gaming company, the Malaysia-based Genting Group, intends to build the "world's largest casino" in downtown Miami, and has purchased the Miami Herald building on Biscayne Boulevard to anchor the complex.

Fowler said the state needs to get its own house in order first.

"We already have a quarter-million people with [gambling-addiction] problems. But the state has decided not to do anything to mitigate that problem," she said.

Until this year, the Florida Legislature had earmarked more than $1 million annually to fund prevention, education and awareness programs aimed at reducing compulsive gambling.

The Altamonte Springs-based Council, the state's designated contractor, operates a 24-hour HelpLine (888-ADMIT-IT) that received 16,629 contacts in the past year. Of that number, 5,800 were specific requests for help and information for a gambling problem -- up 18 percent from the previous year and a 57 percent increase from five years ago.

Now, with Florida contemplating what Fowler calls "the greatest gambling expansion in this state's history," the FCCG says it is scraping the barrel for funding.

The Council received just $264,000 for the current fiscal year -- barely a third of the compulsive-gambling fees paid to the state by Broward and Miami-Dade slot operators.

Fowler says the Council just wants a fair deal from Tallahassee.

Based on the loss of state funding this year, Fowler said, "We are very reluctant to believe that funding will actually be available. Without some sort of dedicated stream of funding, we are saying the state should not even be considering an expansion."

Meantime, FCCG painted a grim picture of gambling-related problems already extant in Florida:

According to problems reported by HelpLine callers in the past year:

Crime: 35 percent reported they resorted to committing illegal acts to finance their gambling.

Unemployed/Public Assistance: 25 percent reported they were unemployed and/or collecting state assistance.

Suicide: Those reporting having suicidal ideation or attempts rose significantly from 11 percent to 16 percent of callers.

Primary Gambling Problem: The most frequently cited primary gambling problem was slots, 46 percent; cards, 33 percent; and lottery, 11 percent.

Fowler praised the Seminole Tribe for funding treatment programs to the tune of $1.3 million last year, but she noted that preventive efforts are needed first and foremost.

As a result of both the expansion of gambling in the state and the accessibility of gambling locations, more and more Floridians will continue to need assistance due to gambling problems, and programs in place to educate and prevent problems developing in the first place.

"It should not be our goal in the state to simply offer treatment to compulsive gamblers after the addiction has developed, but rather to take a responsible position and try to minimize the development of such problems initially, through broad-based awareness, education and prevention programming," she said.

Reach Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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