New Jersey

Powerball Frenzy Can Trip Up Problem Gamblers

For those not solidly in recovery, the hoopla can trigger thoughts about gambling

The Powerball jackpot is $1.5 billion and counting and if you haven’t bought a ticket yet, state lotteries across the country are happy to give you a nudge.

“Give Your Dreams a Chance,” New Jersey urges. “Anything’s Possible,” Illinois promises.

Then there is this slogan, not as catchy but almost as true: “Your chances of winning the lottery are equal whether you buy a ticket or not.”

That last is from a member of Gamblers Anonymous — who in keeping with the group’s policy is not identified — and it is what he remembers as the country gets caught up in lottery fever.

“Whether you have a gambling problem or not, it’s pretty tempting,” he said. "It’s pretty exciting. I don’t think there’s anybody who wouldn’t want to have that kind of money.”

Legalized gambling is now widespread across the United States, with some form available everywhere but Hawaii and Utah, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling, which is based in Washington, D.C. 

As states sponsor lotteries as a source of revenue, out-of-control gamblers struggle. Six million American adults, or about 2 percent of the population, are considered problem gamblers, according to figures available from the National Council on Problem Gambling.

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Keith Whyte, the council’s executive director, said record prizes like Powerball can be a problem both for gamblers chasing the big prize that will solve all of their problems and recovering gamblers who stopped five, 10 or 20 years ago and who report that the publicity can be overwhelming.

“Now you’re just bombarded with this relentless surge of advertising and many problem gamblers feel like they’re only one bet away from winning everything back,” he said. 

Dr. Timothy Fong, an addiction expert in Los Angeles, said that the widespread hoopla surrounding Powerball might not trigger symptoms for those solidly in recovery. But for others, it may start them thinking again about gambling, about money as a way to escape from their problems, he said.

“It’s not as intense as say someone with alcohol (addiction) being plopped down inside a bar or someone with heroin (addiction) being shown needles or drugs, but it’s still a consideration," said Fong, the co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the UCLA Impulse Control Disorders Clinic.

Most of the publicity around Powerball does not include any warning about the dangers, he said. Nor is Powerball marketed as gambling by the states, he said.

Instead the mottos are seductive messages promising positive changes to your life, he said.

Surveys show that most Americans do not view this form of lottery as gambling, unlike for instance scratch-off cards, Fong said. But in California, the lottery is the fourth form of gambling named by patients in treatment programs, behind slot machines, black jack and sports betting.

“The lottery isn’t portrayed as gambling by ads. It’s not covered as gambling by news outlets and so it’s not seen as the same as poker or blackjack, sports betting,” Fong said. “But really it is."

The spokesman for Gamblers Anonymous said its members get repeated encouragement to stay away from lotteries and all other forms of gambling. Today, lotteries are much more socially acceptable, he said.

“It’s a great source of conversation among people who may or may not play the lottery," he said.

How to Get Help

Not all problem gamblers need treatment, Fong said. But for those who do, there are scientifically based methods that work, whether medication, psychotherapy or group treatment, he said. Treatment requires more than just will power, he said. It can take specialists to identify distorted thinking about gambling, whether believing that you are due for win or will not lose on your birthday.

Because gambling addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, for most people in recovery, it is probably not a good idea for them ever to gamble again, he said. But because that position has been challenged, Fong tells his patients that his goal is that they never again have problems caused by gambling.

“Each person is different,” he said. “My goal is always getting people to continue to stay involved in treatment and continue to look at these issues rather than to be very forceful one way or another."

And Fong even admitted to having a Powerball ticket in his pocket, to having spent a few dollars on the dream.

“Even for a gambling addiction treatment specialist like myself,” he said.

If you think you may have a gambling problem, you can call the National Council on Problem Gambling's help line at 1-800-522-4700

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