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Report: Problem gambling on the rise in Florida as lawmakers discuss expansions

While Gov. Rick Scott was sweeping money from the Florida's Council on Compulsive Gambling and diverting it to the state's general fund, demand was growing steadily for the council's services as sweepstakes gambling balloons and problem gambling rose, the organization reports.

In the last year, the number of people seeking help from the non-profit Altamonte Springs-based organization grew by 18 percent, the council reports Tuesday.

The number of callers who called the council because of their gambling problems at Internet cafes soared by a whopping 79 percent. The strip mall style gambling halls that rely on loopholes in the state's sweepstakes laws to operate slot-machine look alikes do not have to post the compulsive gambling hot line, unlike the regulated gambling facilities. 

The non-profit council is a gambling-neutral organization that was started in Florida alongside the emergence of the state Lottery. It pays for gambling education and prevention programs, but that money was zeroed out in May for this budget year because of the governor's budget veto.

“As a result of both the expansion of gambling in the state and the accessibility of gambling locations, more and more Floridians will continue to need assistance due to gambling problems, and programs in place to educate and prevent problems developing in the first place,'' said Pat Fowler, the council's director, in a statement.

Florida legislators made a deal with voters when they implemented slot machine gambling in the state and required licensed slots casino to contribute $250,000 to the compulsive gambling council for education and prevention programs.

But Scott broke the deal. He emptied the fund that and used it for other needs in the state budget. The council's budget went from $1.8 million in 2010-11 to $264,000 in 2011-12. It still handles treatment for gambling, which is paid for with direct payments from the Seminoles Tribes.

 Asked about the veto on Tuesday, Scott had no apologies.

"It's hard,'' he said. "You go through a budget and you try to do your best job. And you make lots of choices. There's a lot of good things I'd like to do. We just don't have the monies to do it."

Fowler noted that while the state is considering authorizing mega resort casinos in Florida, the largest expansion of gambling in its history, the money provided to minimize the negative impacts of gambling is ending.  

"It should not be our goal in the state to simply offer treatment to compulsive gamblers after the addiction has developed, but rather to take a responsible position and try to minimize the development of such problems initially, through broad based awareness, education and prevention programming.”

The council received 16,629 calls to its 24-Hour, toll free, problem gambling help Line (888-ADMIT-IT) in 2010-11, with over 5,800 of the callers seeking help and information for a gambling problem. Among the center's statistics:

• Crime- 35% reported they resorted to committing illegal acts to finance their gambling representing a 3% increase over the previous year and a 12% increase over the past 5 years.

• Unemployed/Public Assistance- 25% reported they were unemployed and/or collecting state assistance, a 4% increase over the previous year, also representing a 12% increase over the past 5 years.

• Suicide – Those reporting having suicidal thoughts or attempts rose significantly from 11% to 16% of callers.

• Primary Gambling Problem – The most frequently cited primary gambling came from slot machines, 46 percent; cards, 33 percent; and lottery, 11 percent. Lottery games were the second most common gambling program cited by 57 percent of callers.

• Most callers reside in South Florida (42 percent) and 66 percent said they gamble at land based facilities. A huge number of callers -- 79 percent -- reported that their problem was gambling at Internet cafes that rely on loopholes in the state's sweepstakes laws for slot-machine look alikes.

The council reports that the cost of gambling addiction is substantial to both communities and the state. According to data collected by the council, an estimated 500,000 Florida citizens experience serious to severe gambling problems and each problem gambler is estimated to cost taxpayers $3,222, and each pathological gambler cost taxpayers $11,304.

 “The cost to provide public awareness, education, and prevention makes considerably more economic and human sense than the position policymakers have taken in not funding programs at all,'' Fowler said in a statement. "The state receives billions of dollars annually from gambling through the lottery and other forms of legalized gambling in the state. The state is also in the business of gambling with provision, promotion, and marketing of the Florida Lottery and as such, has a greater responsibility to do everything it can to minimize the negative impacts this policy results in."

She said it would be irresponsible for legislators to discuss further expansion of gambling without restoring money for prevention programs.