The Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling recognizes March as National Problem Gambling Awareness Month, a time dedicated to increasing public awareness of problem gambling and the availability of prevention, treatment, and recovery services. Problem gambling is defined as all gambling behaviors that compromise, disrupt, or damage personal, family, or vocational pursuits. This month serves as an important opportunity to highlight gambling’s destructive impact on families and society in general.  

As gambling has grown and evolved in Wisconsin, we’ve witnessed increased problems. In 1993, coinciding with the expansion of gambling in the state, especially casinos, the Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling was formed and funded. Ironically, funds for this organization now come almost exclusively from Indian casino profits.

As the state agrees to expand gambling, they know they are asking for trouble; so, they create an organization specifically to help problem gamblers and appropriate money. Remember that the state gets money from the casinos by virtue of the compacts we have entered into with the tribes. As the casinos increase their take, the state gets more money for its budget, making the state the “winner” and its citizens the “losers”

Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling estimates that over 333,000 Wisconsin residents have a gambling problem, which is defined as affecting their finances, their families, and their employment. This number is conservative but still represents almost 6% of Wisconsin’s total population and over 7% of our population over the age of 18.

Calls to the Council’s 24-hour Helpline have increased 343% since 1996, the first year the line was implemented. According to the 2022 report, the average debt of callers contacting the Helpline was over $45,000. Experts seem to agree that in this challenging economy, more people are trying to get out of economic difficulties by gambling; and instead of improving their situation, they are making it significantly worse.

To make matters worse, 65% of compulsive gamblers commit crimes to finance their gambling, 6 to 20% of adolescents develop gambling problems, suicide rates are 20 times higher among pathological gamblers compared to non-gamblers, and people who have other addictions are at a higher risk of becoming addicted to gambling.

None of these statistics are good for families. Studies continue to show that gambling increases the likelihood of family breakdown through divorce and increases the likelihood of child abuse and neglect as well as domestic violence. The National Library of Medicine reports that “Disordered gambling in one individual is estimated to affect six others on average, among whom spouses/partners report the most distress. This includes a wide range of psychological and emotional difficulties, alongside higher prevalence of divorce.” Talk about high stakes. Families are the ones who end up being the biggest losers, which becomes a significant loss for everyone since fragmented families cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year, not to mention the long-term non-financial costs communities endure.

Problem gambling is growing in Wisconsin. The Internet is becoming more and more of a means for people to gamble—in private, without leaving their homes. Casinos, thanks to former Governor Jim Doyle, have increased their games and their hours. Governor Evers has approved the first off-reservation casino, which is scheduled for Beloit; and Kenosha authorities earlier this month approved an off-reservation casino there. Governor Evers also unilaterally approved sports betting here a couple of years ago when he allowed for such gambling on casino property.

Here’s the stark reality: those who run gambling enterprises are in it for one reason—to make money. The odds are stacked against those who play the games—always. The “house” wants people to lose. The “house” needs people to lose in order to make money. What gamblers don’t understand is that they stand to lose a lot more than money when they play this very high-stakes game. That’s why gambling is a very bad bet for families. The best thing families can do is to warn their children about this vice that is so very present via the internet. Remind them that a dollar doesn’t buy hope, but it can result in addiction.

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