David was like most people with a gambling addiction: he didn’t think he had a problem at all.

He can count cards, making him adept at games like blackjack, but he also was drawn to any games involving dice. That’s where he says he lost control.

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David, who is now retired and recovering from gambling addiction, estimates he lost $2.5 million in 15 years of gambling. Now, he facilitates twice-weekly meetings for Gamblers Anonymous in Hawaii. He’s been in the program for 35 years. Civil Beat is only using David’s first name in keeping with GA guidelines for its members.

David sought help after he started borrowing money from friends and family. He twice borrowed $100,000 from his mother-in-law. That second time around, she made the loan out to David’s wife instead of him.

“Having to explain to my wife why I had to borrow $100,000, and that this was the second $100,000 I borrowed – that told me I had some sort of problem and I had to deal with this,” David said.

Addiction is one of the feared problems frequently cited by opponents of gambling, which is illegal in any form in the islands. Another concern is that introducing gambling to Hawaii could lead to a rise in crime.

Gambling proponents have argued that the economic benefits of legalized gambling could outweigh the negative social costs or even help to alleviate some of them. Hawaii is one of the few states in the country that does not allocate any public funding to gambling addiction treatment programs.

People who want to gamble also find other ways to play, including illegal game rooms that are prolific on Oahu and cock fights. In addition, Hawaii residents pump millions of dollars into the economy of Nevada, a destination that is so popular it has become known as the ninth island.

But for opponents, like Eva Andrade of the Hawaii Family Forum, the risks of increases in crime and addiction are too great.

“Our families are already struggling,” Andrade said. “We’d support anything that would help them, but we don’t want to throw our drowning people an anchor instead of a life raft.”

Box of playing cards. Members of the public / potential bidders view some of the jewelry and other valuables in covered containers before the AG offices' auction of forfeited property held at Neal Blaisdell Exhibition Hall. 9 april 2016.
Hawaii has few resources to deal with gambling addiction, and fears of crime increasing if gambling is introduced has hampered legislation in the past. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Crime Concerns

Such worries about the negative effects of gambling have helped consistently kill legislation promoting casinos, lotteries and even sports betting over the years. None of the gambling bills introduced in the 2022 Legislature made it past the first deadline to move into final committees.

Hawaii and Utah are the only two states that ban gambling in any form, so there is some evidence from the mainland about the impact of betting.

Texas economist Earl Grinols and a team of researchers looked at FBI crime statistics in each U.S. county between the mid-1970s and 1990s. Their landmark study published in 2006 found that crime increased by 8% about three to four years after the introduction of a casino in individual counties.

The researchers also found a “spillover effect,” suggesting that counties adjacent to those with casinos also experienced slight increases in crime rates.

“There’s not a lot of opportunities for people to get gambling-specific help, that entire system is absent.” — Keith Whyte of the National Council on Problem Gambling

Tribal casinos have had a positive impact on the health and economic well-being of surrounding communities, researchers from the University of Maryland found. However, the same researchers also found that bankruptcy, theft, larceny and other, violent crimes increased 10% about four years after the introduction of a casino.

“One concern is that casinos increase problem gambling and gamblers turn to property crime to feed their habit,” William Evans and Julie Topoleski wrote in their paper on tribal gaming.

Last year, California researchers surveyed college students in the state and found that rates of problem gambling among respondents tended to be higher in areas close to casinos.

In a paper published last year, Grinols and economics professor David Mustard found that problem gamblers were more likely than the average person to commit crimes. “The presence of crime effects and other social costs raises the question of whether this is the best way for government to raise revenues,” Grinols and Mustard wrote.

Too Few Resources

Whatever the connection may be between gambling and crime on the mainland, Hawaii is ill prepared to deal with the effects of gambling addiction as it’s one of the few states that doesn’t allocate any public funding to treat the problem. Utah, Idaho, Alaska and Arkansas are the others.

“There’s not a lot of opportunities for people to get gambling-specific help, that entire system is absent,” Keith Whyte, director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said.

The National Council on Problem Gambling is a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. that works with communities affected by gambling. It has local affiliates in 35 states. Hawaii is not one of them.

The exact number of individuals dealing with a gambling problem in Hawaii is unknown, though the national council estimates that 24,000 people in the islands struggle with compulsive gambling. The state Department of Health said it has no data on gambling addiction in Hawaii.

Most states that fund addiction treatment programs do so by allocating a percentage of revenues from gambling to those programs. Without a legal form of gambling in Hawaii, that mechanism to fund treatment programs is absent in the islands.

“One of the big myths is that because Hawaii doesn’t have legalized gambling, the state doesn’t have an obligation to address problem gambling,” Whyte said. “The logical fallacy in that argument is obvious. Hawaii doesn’t legalize opioids, but of course the state recognizes it has an obligation to prevent and treat drug addiction.”

Last year, the council received more than 2,000 calls for help from Hawaii residents seeking treatment for gambling addiction, Whyte said. In most other states, those individuals could then be connected with certified gambling counselors to help them.

Whyte said the council has struggled to find services in Hawaii for those callers and often will refer them to counselors who have experience with other forms of addiction, like substance abuse.

“But we believe people with gambling problems need specific, specialized help,” Whyte said.

In the past two decades, researchers have found correlations between the presence of casinos and increases in crime rates and problem gambling. Flickr: Liji Jinaraj

Setting Examples

Shari Lynn, director of Ka Hale Pomaikaʻi addiction treatment center on Molokai, thought the same thing. For the last 10 years, Lynn has made annual trips to Wisconsin to attend a conference for rural mental health professionals, where she has participated in training sessions aimed at helping those struggling with gambling addictions.

She said she needed to go out of state for that training because she couldn’t find any available in Hawaii. The International Gambling Counselor Certification Board lists no certified counselors for Hawaii.

Lynn said she sees about two to three new clients a year who have a gambling addiction. Some have asked her to lock their debit cards in a safe over the weekend so they can’t use it to gamble online.

She and other counselors in Hawaii have said that most people won’t admit they have a gambling problem when they first seek treatment. They usually come in seeking help with substance abuse or counseling for a family issue.

“For many people, I don’t think they come in and think of gambling as an addiction as much as they see it as a money problem,” said Jeffrey Chester, an addiction specialist on Maui.

Chester and Lynn said more awareness and resources need to be dedicated to treat gambling locally.

“I don’t need Wisconsin training for Hawaii,” Lynn said. “I need Hawaii training for Hawaii.”

California provides problem gambling programs with the most funding of any state at about $9 million a year. Pennsylvania is the runner-up, providing about $6.5 million annually.

Pennsylvania also has a robust system for addressing problem gambling. The state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs distributes money for gambling treatment programs at low or no cost to Pennsylvania residents.

The state also has a nonprofit Council on Compulsive Gambling, which is affiliated with the National Council for Problem Gambling. The agency helps connect people with treatment options or Gamblers Anonymous groups.

game room
Illegal gambling is already here in Hawaii, but the state has few resources to deal with gambling addiction. Honolulu Police Department

Finally, the state’s Office of Compulsive Gambling helps to regulate Pennsylvania’s gaming industry and ensures that casinos and online gaming operators have safeguards in place to deter problem gambling and direct those struggling with addiction to treatment.

All gaming operators are required to publish a problem gaming plan as part of their application for a gaming license. They must also train staff to identify signs of problem gambling, said Elizabeth Lanza, director of the compulsive gambling office.

Gaming operators there have programs that allow gamblers to impose limits on how much they are allowed to bet.

“Those are for individuals that want to keep their gambling at a safe level so it stays as a form of entertainment,” Lanza said.

Gamblers in Pennsylvania also are able to ban themselves from casinos or mobile betting websites by signing up for the state’s self-exclusion program, which would impose a criminal citation on problem gamblers who are caught betting.

As of 2021, more than 16,000 people were enrolled in the program, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Twenty-five other states have similar self-exclusion programs. Pennsylvania also certifies its own gambling counselors.

Lanza said the state’s entire regulatory and treatment systems for gambling were in place before casinos were opened.

“From the get-go we’ve really had a focus on this,” Lanza said of the state’s treatment programs.

It’s not clear that Hawaii would ever have a program like Pennsylvania’s – or any other state for that matter. Bills proposing legalized gambling in Hawaii would have set aside money to address gambling addictions in Hawaii. but all those bills have been shelved for this legislative session.

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s gambling problems may be growing.

Prior to the pandemic, David, Hawaii’s Gamblers Anonymous Facilitator, said it was hard to maintain GA groups on the neighbor islands. Recently, meetings have only taken place on Oahu, although more people are able to participate via Zoom.

David said he’s seeing younger people asking for help as well as getting more calls from high school counselors. He believes the rise of internet gambling has opened the door to younger people gambling.

David said he struggled to quit gambling, even when he started in the Gamblers Anonymous program.

“I didn’t take it seriously in the beginning, I always thought I was smarter than the average Joe,”  David said. “Once I understood what the problem was, and that I had no control of it, I embraced the program.”

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