DR HOOK- You betcha! Gambling ‘addiction' a serious problem

Las Vegas is sin city? It's been four years since I've been to Vegas, and to me it's pretty cleaned up. (Although to some people, that's like saying a brothel going from cash to credit card is cleaned up.) 

For example, it was almost impossible to find a raunchy postcard to send to relatives. The sidewalks weren't covered with flyers offering chances to see naked women in strip clubs. (Yawn!) People weren't drinking in public. But one stinking fact remained– the smoking. Each casino and resort should offer gas masks. I think the state bird of Nevada is the Marlboro Man.

Someone told me, "You have to put money in the slot machine to make money." 

I won't put more than $20 into a slot a machine and have never come out ahead, but I decided to take her advice on my most recent Vegas visit. So between Cirque du Soleil's Love and Mama Mia, I put in a few cents more into the quarter slots. And guess what? I lost more than $20! (I plead the Fifth on exactly how much.)

Is gambling addictive?

In our society of want, want, need, need, more, more, the word "addicted" is highly overused. Maybe gambling problems are based more on greed, hopes, delusions, and thrill. I must admit, when I was a down on the money and then won all my money back (and a little more), my glands squeezed out a ton of adrenaline. I began to think, "Hey, maybe Lady Luck is with me!" So I played, played, played– and lost, lost, lost. Suddenly the flashing lights and "binga-banga-boom" sounds of the slot machine lost their appeal. I felt like Charlie Brown trick-or-treating: "I got a rock."

Eight-six percent of Americans have gambled, but less than 10 percent develop a gambling problem. Fifty percent of people have played the lottery, and 25 percent at a casino, which is about double compared to 30 years ago. Half a trillion dollars are wagered every year by people hoping to hit it big. 

The psychiatrists' Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines maladaptive gambling behavior as five or more of the following: 1) Preoccupation with gambling. 2) Committing illegal acts like theft or fraud. (Because most gamblers lose money, debt is not uncommon. So major efforts become directed to getting enough money to make it to the next gambling event.) 3) Needing to borrow money from others. 4) Lying about the gambling. 5) Ruining relationships and/or work due to gambling. (It's no wonder.) 6) Looking for Lady Luck another day to "get even" with losing money. 7) Failing to stop gambling or cut back despite many attempts. Sounds similar to alcoholism. 8) Higher stakes. One needs to gamble with more money for excitement. 9) Seeking a way to escape from reality. 10) Suffering when trying to withdraw from gambling, like being irritable or restless. 

Teenagers are most at risk for gambling problems, especially those who get into trouble– that's no surprise. Gambling problems are associated with males more than females, especially those with a history of alcohol and drug abuse, violence in their lives, being arrested, carrying weapons, driving drunk, not wearing seatbelts– sounds like an Oscar-winning movie formula.

Remember when Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson bet half their life earnings on roulette in Indecent Proposal? Well, that isn't too far from the truth of persistent gamblers because those with a history of bankruptcy are more at risk for gambling problems.

Egad, so depressing! But I know people whose lives have been destroyed by gambling– their own or someone else's. So next time I go to Vegas, the only risk I'm going to take will be using my Old Spice deodorant and Crest toothpaste from Proctor and Gamble. 

For more information on this serious problem, see ncpgambling.org.

Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a renowned physician with a local practice. Email him with your questions.