Against the Odds

Referendum E is a sucker bet, but the state's hooked on lottery games.

Rupe worries what a multi-state game might bring to a state that's well behind many others in addressing its gambling problems. "The higher jackpots do attract more players," she says. "I think there needs to be some research on underage gambling and on seniors. I would have hoped that would happen before this multi-state lottery came about."

Two years ago, state senator Jim Dyer introduced a bill that would have set aside a modest portion of lottery profits for treatment of compulsive gamblers, similar to legislation enacted in other states. Therapist Nancy Lantz, a pioneer in gambling treatment in the state, pushed hard for Dyer's bill, only to see it defeated along party lines.

Lantz first became interested in gambling issues while developing court-ordered treatment programs for men convicted of domestic violence ("Men Who Beat Women and the Woman Who Treats Them," June 18, 1998). As a condition of treatment, the men would have to give up booze and drugs, but in many cases, Lantz found, they would compensate by gambling heavily. "There was no one in Colorado who knew how to treat gamblers," she recalls.

Glenn Hilario
State senator Ken Chlouber is the power behind the Powerball push.
State senator Ken Chlouber is the power behind the Powerball push.

Lantz founded the Colorado Council on Compulsive Gambling shortly after the mountain casinos opened in 1991. She's now program manager for the Robert and Lillian Custer Gambling Treatment Center in Indianapolis, the first (and only) residential treatment program focusing exclusively on problem gambling disorders. Patients from around the world stay an average of 24 days, the first several of which are devoted to intensive psychological and physiological workups.

The two-year-old program builds on research that shows a strong link between brain chemistry and gambling behaviors. Lantz says many of her clients show signs of multiple addictions or disorders, known as "co-morbidities," including a high incidence of attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and even Parkinson's disease. ("The dopamine and seratonin get depleted from Parkinson's, and gambling will raise that," she explains. "It's self-medication.") Most require much more than counseling, including medication, financial evaluations and extensive followup. Since gambling "relapses" can't be detected through standard screening methods, such as urinalysis, Lantz sometimes has family members pull credit reports.

The lottery players Lantz has seen tend to be "escape gamblers," she says. "They isolate a lot. Other people aren't noticing because they aren't around people. Many of them are depressed. Did the gambling create the depression, or were they depressed when they started? We don't always know."

The pathological lottery players also tend to be lower-income, she points out, such as a suicidal young artist from Colorado who checked himself in at the Custer Center a few months ago. "It's easier for them to go down to the corner than get on a bus to Central City," Lantz says. "Some of them don't even have telephones."

Through her work with other state councils as well as the Custer program, Lantz knows that multi-state games not only perk up lottery revenues, but also add to the existing casualty list. "Colorado has made leaps and bounds in awareness of the problem, but they still have done nothing about treatment," she says. "If they're going to do a multi-state lottery, they need to have the resources in place. The more availability, the more problems are going to surface."

A few years ago, novelist Lois Gould interviewed several Colorado lottery winners for the New York Times. She discovered that even players whose dreams had come true were scarcely content with their lot; in fact, their riches had resulted in so much resentment, so many ruptured friendships, so much anxiety and upheaval that some wished they had never won.

Debra Van Straete, who won $6.85 million in a scratch game in 1987, told Gould that one of her sisters didn't speak to her for a year because she didn't pick up a breakfast check. Another expected Debra to repay her student loans. Close friends hit her up for money and then disappeared, and her husband's employees abruptly demanded big pay raises.

Teresa Molander threw a big party to celebrate when she won $1.3 million in 1985. Ten years later, none of those who came to the party were still speaking to her. Shortly after $4 million winner Barbara Langfeldt appeared in a commercial for the Colorado Lottery, her parents' house was burglarized.

Many of the people Gould interviewed seemed to regard themselves as victims rather than winners. They had not anticipated the burdens of success, and they were having a hard time adjusting to the situation.

The Colorado Lottery is finding its success tough to live with, too. Locked into popular but less profitable modes of play, limited to a low-key form of advertising that has become a model of restraint for the rest of the industry, its only prospect for goosing revenues is to introduce a new product, offering much larger jackpots and much crueler odds. But Jerry Kopel says that new tide of money won't solve anything.

According to initial estimates, a multi-state game would produce a total of $18.8 million in net proceeds in its first two years of operation, including $2 million for school repairs and construction. But since the game is expected to take business away from the existing Lotto game -- who wants to play for $1.5 million, when the same buck can buy you a crack at $20 million, $100 million or $200 million? -- Kopel argues that the long-term gain to the state may be negligible. Murray says the Colorado Lottery will continue to offer the current Lotto game for at least six months but may have to adjust the jackpots downward to reflect declining sales (a move that will almost certainly further depress sales). The lottery's own newsletter offers only a cheerful, short-term prediction for a multi-state game: "Healthy sales are anticipated for at least 1-2 years."

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