The debate over renegotiating state-tribal gaming compacts, which confer monopoly rights to casinos, has focused mostly on dollars and cents. But the debate should also focus on the societal fallout of casinos: the ripple effects of problem gamblers.

The reality of problem gambling is now constant in Oklahoma, as individuals are constantly being sent to prison for embezzlement and theft driven by gambling addiction. Those sent to prison include everyone from school officials to state government leaders.

And gambling doesn’t have to lead to prison to ruin someone’s life. For example, a study of members of Gamblers Anonymous found 26% had gambling-related divorces or separations.

Yet, of the paltry $139 million in casino exclusivity fees collected by the Oklahoma government in 2018, in exchange for the monopoly given to current casino operators, just $250,000 went to treatment of problem gambling, or roughly one-tenth of 1%. (Another $750,000 for treatment comes from lottery proceeds.)

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the casino industry and the size of the addiction problem.

The Council on Casinos, an organization comprised primarily of academics at major universities, examined the impact of casinos in a 2013 report. That report remains one of the best resources on this topic.

The report highlights why problem gambling will be more widespread in Oklahoma than in other states.

The council found regional casinos, like those in Oklahoma, “attract the great majority of their customers from nearby communities,” and a typical patron lives within 70 miles of a casino.

Since Oklahoma has over 100 tribal casinos (operating with geographic monopolies), and proximity is associated with higher rates of problem gambling, it’s obvious problem gambling is a major issue in Oklahoma.

The council found the features that cause players to gamble longer and lose more money at slot machines also contribute to addictive behaviors. The council found nearly “half of individuals sitting in front of gambling devices at any one time exhibit ‘problematic’ gambling behaviors.”

Financially, casinos depend upon problem gamblers for much of their revenue—40% to 60% of slot machine revenue comes from that group, according to studies cited by the council. Casual players who don’t have addiction issues provide little money. The council cited one study in Canada that found casual players comprised 75% of players, but just 4% of net gambling revenue.

Put simply, the eighth-largest industry in Oklahoma was built primarily on the backs of a group of problem gamblers, but this group is virtually ignored in coverage of the gaming-compact debate. That neglect does not happen when we we’re talking about the tobacco, opioid, alcohol or marijuana industries. Rather than avert our eyes, Oklahoma needs to face the reality of gambling addiction.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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