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Casinos target senior citizens, gambling opponents say

9/24/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Report By Pat Rogers*









Edward Glines and his friend, Rhoda Wise, wait for the "Lucky Streak" bus that will take them from a hotel parking lot in suburban Maryland to Trump Casino in Atlantic City, N.J.

Glines, 78, makes a trip to Atlantic City at least once a year. He regularly plays cards with his friends and often visits the racetrack near his home in South Florida. He is one of a growing number of seniors who spend their free time gambling in casinos and playing other games of chance.

"It's exciting. … I guess everybody likes it," he says before boarding the bus for the three-and-a-half-hour ride to Atlantic City.

Seniors such as Glines and Wise see casino trips as welcome social outings - a chance to get out of the house, be with friends and have a little fun. But experts say seniors, especially those who begin gambling late in life, risk becoming problem gamblers or even addicts.

Pat Fowler, who runs the National Council on Problem Gambling, says 22 percent of the calls to her help line are from seniors who are problem gamblers. "It's not unusual for us to hear from an older person who has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they usually lose it all in a short time," she says.

In some cases, she says, senior citizens become so addicted to gambling that they risk money earmarked for prescription drugs.

"What you are seeing today are older adults who never gambled or gambled very little but begin gambling in retirement and it (gambling) often accelerates out of control," Fowler says.

The Rev. John Eades, a United Methodist pastor from Murfreesboro, Tenn., recalls a 70-year-old man who lost everything to gambling. “He started gambling when he was 68, and he lost his home, his retirement, and he was left with whatever his Social Security would bring in.” Eades, a professional addiction counselor, knows the dangers, after battling a gambling addiction to it himself.

Casinos and other gambling outlets target older Americans because seniors often have free time and discretionary income, Fowler says.

Casinos use perks such as free meals and drinks, cheap transportation and coupons as lures designed to reel seniors in. They also entice retirees with promotional mailings and advertising. Fowler says a casino in Iowa even offered discounts on prescription drugs.

"You will see the industry choose promotions that appeal to the older adult; we have seen marketing across the board that targets that population," Fowler says.

Fowler and other experts say another factor in the rising number of problem senior gamblers is the ever-increasing accessibility of gambling outlets.

The landmark National Gambling Impact Study shows that before 1990, casino gambling was legal in just two states; today 28 states allow casinos to do business. The study also says that 48 states have legalized gambling, such as casinos, lotteries and horse racing.

And, according to a University of Illinois study, casinos depend on problem and addicted gamblers for profits. Fifty-two percent of casino revenues come from such gamblers, the study shows.

The Rev. Tom Grey, a United Methodist and executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, isn't surprised that casinos target older Americans.

"They are bottom-line people; all that matters is money," Grey says. "Why would we expect people that sell a product that is addictive should have any concern if they sell that product to the old or the sick?"

Grey has battled with gambling interests in 49 states and five countries, fighting to stop or at least limit gambling's spread.

Seniors are especially vulnerable to becoming problem gamblers because when they were young, gambling was seen as sinful, or at least harmful, he says.

"They grew up when gambling was prohibited, and now all of a sudden the stamp of approval is on it as entertainment. And once they get into it they don't have an immune system for it, they didn't grow up with it," Grey says.

The United Methodist Church opposes gambling in any form. In its Book of Discipline, the church condemns gambling as a "menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government."

Grey urges congregations to offer seniors more alternative free-time activities in an attempt to keep their older parishioners out of casinos.

And he says religious leaders haven't done enough to fight gambling forces looking to expand.

"I naively expected that the church would want to get in a good fight, but as far as a national battle, it hasn't happened. America should be ashamed of itself that it has let gambling have a free ride, and I mean the political and the religious establishment," Grey says.

The coalition and the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion will hold their annual meeting Sept. 26-27 in the Washington area.

Fowler and Grey are calling for educational campaigns warning older Americans about the dangers of gambling.

"They aren't being prepared to gamble safely," Fowler says. "They are going in growing numbers without any awareness or education about the fact that it isn't risk free."

But older gamblers such as Glines and Wise say they're willing to take what they see as a small risk in order to pursue their hobby. "We have a limit," Glines says.

"Have fun," Wise says, stepping onto the "Lucky Streak" bus. "That's the story of life - do it while you can."

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*Rogers is a writer and producer based in Washington.

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