International casino companies would have Floridians believe there would be no downside to building up to three mega-casinos in South Florida. But statistics tell a different story. • New data from the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling — a group underwritten, until this year, by state taxpayers — show 5,848 people called the group's hotline in 2010-11 and acknowledged a gambling addiction. Of those, more than 2,000 — or an average of more than five callers each day — also admitted they had committed a crime to support their habit. Those are just the self-professed addicts who finally awoke to an illness fed by the Florida Lottery, parimutuels, Indian casinos and the nascent Internet cafes. How many more Floridians — and their families — are suffering?
Apparently, Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature don't want to know. Last year, citing a depressed economy, lawmakers broke a decadeslong promise to voters who approved the Florida Lottery. Lawmakers slashed support for addictive gambling education and intervention (which had been paid for through the industry's taxes). Then Scott vetoed what little was left in the budget, claiming it was his job to prioritize the state's spending and that addiction help wasn't the state's obligation. It's a message now being echoed by state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, a former gambling opponent now sponsoring the bill to build three "destination resort" casinos in the state.
But gambling is a vice unlike any other in Florida. The state doesn't promote alcohol or addictive drugs. Prostitution is illegal, and the state actually underwrites campaigns for exercise and healthy diet and against smoking and drunken driving. Only gambling does the state promote, urging Floridians through seductive advertising and in groceries and convenience stores to risk their money on the lottery. That prompted Gov. Lawton Chiles to insist, in the 1990s, that the state also fund compulsive gambling intervention services. Gov. Jeb Bush followed up with money dedicated to prevention education.
Now that is gone, even as the council's records show problem gambling is on the rise in Florida with the addition of slot machines to parimutuels, expanding Indian casinos and the arrival of Internet cafes. In just five years, the number of people calling the council for addiction help is up 57 percent. That's even before lawmakers convene in January and contemplate the largest expansion of gambling in Florida's history.
"We know how this goes," says Pat Fowler, the council's executive director. "Those addicted to gambling gamble long enough to run out of money. And then they run out of resources to get money. And if there is not an intervention of family or someone else, they commit a crime to get money to keep gambling. They think, 'Next time the odds favor me.' "
But they don't. Written in state law — for the games Florida endorses — is the hard reality of an industry that makes its money by separating its customers from theirs. The house always wins. All the state does is limit the margins and play the patsy, absorbing the collateral damage of more crime, demand for social services and lost productivity.
By one conservative estimate, each individual who calls Fowler's helpline represents 50 others who haven't picked up the phone, not yet ready to admit their problem. The addicted gamblers, their families and society continue to lose ground even as legislative leaders in Tallahassee toy with tempting them with extraordinary new casinos and refuse to rein in the neighborhood Internet cafes.
There's already enough collateral damage from gambling. The state does not need to open the door to more with mega-casinos.