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Video lottery...cash cow or dangerous demon?

by: Rick Swart, Brenda Gamez of Portland tries her hand at one of the Oregon Lottery’s video poker machines at the Wigwam Tavern in Scappoose. Video poker and line games are a $14 million a year business in Columbia County.

When the Oregon lottery released its sales figures for the past year, Columbia County showed up as a winner - or a loser, depending on your point of view about gambling.

On a per capita basis, people over the age of 18 in Columbia County spent $612 a year on games of chance, more than the average spending per gambler in all but three other counties.

Lottery officials say that number is skewed by what they call the 'cross-over' effect of people from Longview, Wash., who drive over the bridge at Rainier in droves to play Oregon's video poker machines.

Washington does not have video poker, which is why Oregon's gateway towns, including Rainier, have disproportionately high revenue, according to Chuck Baumann, spokesman for the Oregon lottery.

Carol Chism is familiar with the cross-over effect because she has talked about it with her clients at Columbia Community Mental Health, which provides inpatient and outpatient treatment to problem gamblers and individuals who are addicted to games of chance.

'They get aroused on the bridge because they anticipate that they're getting close to that source of addiction,' she said, 'and the dopamine starts flowing.'

The source of addiction is primarily video poker machines. Oregon, which added video poker to its product line in 1992, is the only state-sponsored lottery in the West that offers casino-style video gambling to its customers. Chism and other social workers that treat problem gamblers believe the machines are designed to hook people on gambling.

'It's like Pavlov's dog,' she said, referring to the legendary Russian psychologist and Nobel laureate known for his research on stimuli and conditional reflexes. 'The lights and sounds are designed to create conditioned responses.' Like Pavlov's dog, which began to salivate in anticipation of getting a treat, gamblers get a rush when they see the flashing lights and hear the bells and chimes of a one-armed bandit.

Just as thousands of Oregonians have become addicted to video poker, public officials have become addicted to the revenue it generates. When the lottery began in 1986, it was intended to provide funding for economic developments around the state. In 1995, some of the proceeds of the lottery were dedicated to schools. Three years later, state parks and watershed councils were added to the list of beneficiaries.

Video gambling has quickly become the lottery's largest source of revenue, providing roughly two-thirds of what has become a $1 billion a year industry.

Last year, video poker and other electronic games of chance in Columbia County generated $14 million for the lottery while the other lottery games - scratch-off tickets, Keno, Megabucks and Powerball - generated an additional $7 million. Of the $21 million generated by the lottery last year, the county got back roughly $6 million, proving what Las Vegas has known for years - the house always wins. Always.

That doesn't stop gamblers from gambling. Like Pavlov's dog, they always come back for another treat, even when it defies all rationality.

Some will come back even when they've crossed that magic line between social gambling and addiction, risking everything - relationships, financial security, health, and even life itself - for one more game, and one more, and one more.

'It's playing with fire,' said Chism, 'People lose their homes, their marriages, their jobs. Once it crosses that barrier it's very hard to break because it's not rational.'

Some people say that the lottery's video poker and line games are no different, no better than the games in Vegas. Lottery officials disagree with that, essentially saying they're a gambling institution with a conscience.

'Our mantra is: in a perfect world a lot of people are playing just a little,' said Baumann, who points out that 1 percent of revenue proceeds are used to pay for treatment at places like Columbia Community Mental Health.

In Oregon, treatment for problem gambling is free for anybody who wants it. In addition, Oregon's video poker machines have clocks in the screens that keep the players abreast of the time of day at all times. 'It's not like the Las Vegas casinos where you get lost and don't have any idea what time it is,' said Bauman. Another distinction is balances expressed in dollars rather than points to give players a better sense of how much is at stake.

The lottery also has an aggressive outreach program for the 2-3 percent of players who become problem gamblers. It posts stickers on all its machines directing problem gamblers to a toll-free gambler's hotline, which can provide over-the-phone counseling as well as referrals to community treatment centers. It also advertises those numbers in advertisements, posters and brochures.

Of those who seek and complete treatment, 60 percent do not gamble again for 90 days or more, according to Chism, which is a better recovery rate than for other addictions. Chism, who is the only certified gambling addiction counselor in the county, says she uses a combination of education and psychotherapy to help get her clients on the road to recovery. She also recommends to every client that they join a support group, like Gamblers Anonymous, which meets every Monday at 7 p.m. at the Alano Club in St. Helens, which is located at 215 N. Sixth St.

Chism noted that in many cases family members are also adversely affected by problem gambling and they, too, are eligible for free treatment under the lottery-funded help program.

'I'm proud of this facility and the successes we've had,' she said.