Louisiana's Compulsive Gambling Problem

By Karen Fischer 03/01/17

Gambling isn't like alcoholism or drug addiction—someone can have a gambling problem and go undiagnosed for years.

A row of slot machines in a casino with an elderly man sitting at the far end.
“States like Louisiana that have issues staying physically healthy go hand in hand with addictions."

The state of Louisiana in 2016 found itself ranked #3 in the country for gambling addiction among adults.

The statistic was determined by the amount of casinos in the state, gambling machines per capita and records reported from gambling treatment facilities. It is not difficult to see why Louisiana’s ranking was so high—opportunities to gamble are plentiful. Gambling avenues such as video poker can be found in bars, restaurants, laundromats and roadside casinos in both major cities and rural areas.

Gambling often acts as a sort of double-edged sword for many. On one hand, revenue from casinos and other gambling mechanisms bolster state budgets and allow for vital funds to be invested in infrastructure, education and other public projects. On the other hand, gambling holds the potential to create unhealthy local economies when the money doesn’t go into small community businesses that may need it most. 

Understanding the breadth of gambling addiction in Louisiana is complex, to say the least. Janet Miller, the executive director of the Louisiana Association on Compulsive Gambling (LACG), said, “I think we have not seen in the clinical field the true numbers of gambling addicts yet. There is a lot more gambling going on that is a big problem, but it is easy to hide it. It’s not like alcoholism or drug addiction—someone can have a gambling problem and go undiagnosed for years.”

Even the act of diagnosing what can be constituted as gambling addiction truly depends upon vantage point. 

JoAnn Guidos, owner of Kajun’s Pub in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, said, “Regulars come in, play a bit on our poker machines and leave. I wouldn’t call it addiction. Revenue on our machines since 2005 to now is only 25 percent of what it used to be.”

Guidos began contemplating opening Kajun’s Pub in the 1990s while working as a repair technician who fixed video poker machines and saw firsthand how much revenue they could bring to a business. 

“The local market is flooded now, and you see more machines at bars and more casinos opening,” Guidos said. “People might be going somewhere else to play. I don’t see people pumping money into playing video poker here. The price of living is rising, so people can’t afford to be gambling all the time.” 

However, it may all come down to perspective. A bartender at Kajun’s who requested anonymity said, “I see people come in the bar on payday and play the poker machines all the time. I’d say a majority of the people that play here have an addiction.”

Without reliable means to differentiate between occasional gambling for entertainment and addictive behavior, patient numbers in treatment facilities remain one of the only reliable ways to actively differentiate pathology from play. 

In January 2017, the Louisiana Association on Compulsive Gambling (LACG) fielded 2,000 calls from Louisiana citizens and their families concerned about gambling habits, the highest percentage of which was most prevalent in gamblers who were 25 to 34 years old. 

“Millennials are a very different age group than they used to be,” Miller said. “A few generations back, people were paid minimum wage and had to work their way up. Now people want higher wages off the bat, and gambling is seen as a way to make more money to help them get on their feet.” 

Miller explained that the millennial generation is the first to be constantly exposed to video games and social media from an early age, and are therefore more likely to engage with readily available technology for extended periods of time. Therefore, a lot of problematic gambling can be occurring in the home rather than in the public domain—fantasy sports or online gaming, for example, utilize the same skill-sets as video games.

“(Millennials) can be zoned in and hyper-focused on a game, which is what makes gambling addiction socially different,” Miller said. “People who start showing problematic gambling are those that are hyper-focused when gambling and losing reality.”

However, because so many gambling addicts are undiagnosed or spend most of their time on personal devices, the physical demographics in establishments look a bit different than those shown in statistics.

“The majority of people I see come in and use the machine are older locals, people who grew up in this neighborhood that I would guess are between 40 to 60 years old,” the bartender from Kajun’s Pub said.

A roadside casino worker in New Orleans, who also requested anonymity in the interest of his employment, echoed the same observation. 

“It’s all locals at the casino here,” he said. “They’re older with their own families. I know they have problems when they go back and forth to their car to go and get more money and spend it all. It’s the same people every day and business stays steady.”

Louisiana is not unaccustomed to fiscal fallout. In 2016 Louisiana’s poverty level ranked third in the U.S., and the state is currently struggling to plug a $304 million mid-year deficit. 

Gambling can often be seen as an addiction that goes hand in hand with other public societal factors that feed into state fiscal health, such as quality of or access to healthcare.  

“States like Louisiana that have issues staying physically healthy go hand in hand with addictions,” Miller said. “Medicine costs money, or copays, or time, therefore gambling is connected to health. Some people don’t like how physical or mental issues feel, but get accustomed to not feeling good. Louisiana is low on proper health, and addictions make you feel better.”

Miller elaborated that considering states have trouble sticking to their budgets, businesses fold and people lose their jobs. However, constant access to credit and loans can spur pathological gambling in these troubling circumstances. 

Still, addiction treatment is available to every single Louisiana resident virtually free of charge. 

“When casinos wanted to come into Louisiana, a bill was put into place by the right people and legislators agreed that a portion of casino taxed money would go directly into treating gambling addicts and their families,” Miller said.

In many respects, Louisiana is actually at the forefront of gambling addiction treatment facilities in the country. LACG not only offers a 24/7 gambling hotline, there is also a residential option in the Center of Recovery-CORE, a facility offering free treatment regardless of insurance plan to Louisiana residents afflicted by gambling addiction. 

CORE is lauded for its gambling addiction treatment program and houses recovering gamblers from Canada, Japan and Mexico. LACG will be the first Gambling Addiction Accredited Help Line in 2017, making it a valuable resource for other states establishing treatment options and drafting policies in the interest of prevention and rehabilitation.

“I don’t want people in Louisiana to suffer in 2017 from an addiction that is treatable when there’s help for it and it’s free,” Miller said. “You don’t have to come to our headquarters in Shreveport, we can refer local options and can get you help from home in your own town. If you don’t have transportation to CORE, we will get you on a Greyhound. I want people to know that no matter your gambling addiction or financial situation, Louisiana will take care of you.”  

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