The young man said he had never gambled in his life. Then he decided to check out the new Hollywood Casino Columbus.
Two weeks later, he had lost everything, including the trust of his mom when he stole from her after his cash ran out.
Desperate to slam the door on his new addiction, he asked the state to ban him from entering another Ohio casino — for life.
He’s now among more than 350 people who have registered with the Voluntary Exclusion Program (VEP), according to Laura Clemens, the problem gambling program coordinator with the Ohio Casino Control Commission.
The registry circulates names and photos of willing participants, who agree to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal trespassing if they are caught gambling at a casino. The contracts they sign also agree that any winnings found with them will be confiscated and donated to charity.
The number in the VEP is expected to grow significantly. Other states with similar programs have registered thousands of gamblers.
And while the program does not extend to bans on so-called Internet cafes, about 40 percent of the calls coming into the state-funded gambling hot line come from people who frequent those venues.
“That’s a twist I didn’t expect,” Clemens said.
Those who sign up for VEP can ask to be banned for one year, five years or life. Those who choose life can never have their name removed from the list, yet about half of all registrants choose that option.
Some casino companies will carry the ban to their out-of-state properties. Horseshoe Casino Cleveland has arrested a handful of people who had signed up for bans in other states. They typically are caught when they apply for a players card or when presenting identification to collect a large prize.
This month, one man was caught when a dealer recognized him as someone who had inquired the week before about how to sign up for VEP. The man’s identification was checked and he, indeed, had signed up.
“It’s hard, it’s really hard. They want help,” Clemens said of the troubled gamblers.
Signing up for VEP — and the real threat of arrest and prosecution — “is a tool in their treatment. That’s why it has to be extremely voluntary” and people have to register in person in Columbus or at a casino, she said. Clemens said there is an effort under way to quantify whether the opening of the casinos has caused an increase in addiction.
A survey was conducted prior to the first casino opening, and another will be repeated in a couple of years to gauge changes.
That first survey suggested the age group 18 to 30 — a generation that grew up watching poker tournaments on TV and seeing players become celebrities — might need some special attention.
“It’s a demographic we need to put our emphasis on. We need to reach this group with a prevention message,” she said.
Jim Bates, a family wellness field specialist with Ohio State University Extension, said that message needs to reach an even younger crowd.
Research suggests adolescents exhibit serious gambling pathology at two to four times the rate of adults, so kids growing up in a casino state are especially at risk.
He suggested parents be open with their children about their own gambling practices and not assume their children understand the dangers or consequences.
For instance, parents could explain to their children how the cost of a casino trip is built into the family budget and that they will limit what they spend, and explain how some people can become addicted and blow their savings or ruin relationships.
“Parents just need to have that conversation and explain their rules,” he said.
The state’s Responsible Gambling website (http://casino control.ohio.gov/Responsible Gambling.aspx) offers links to gambling addiction treatment centers and symptoms to watch for.
Gamblers Anonymous (www.gamblersanonymous.org) is another option for people who need support. Local meetings are held in Akron, Canton and Cuyahoga Falls.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis. Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.