With three casinos and a racino now open and more on the way in Ohio, state residents with gambling problems are reaching out for help in greater numbers.
Phone calls to the state’s gambling help line are climbing, and more people are signing up for the state’s “Voluntary Exclusion” program that bars them from entering a casino and could result in their arrest.
In the last fiscal year, which ended in June, the Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline (800-589-9966) received 2,576 calls, with most coming after the opening of Horseshoe Casino in Cleveland and Hollywood Casino in Toledo.
The calls are on the pace to shatter that total this fiscal year, with 1,389 in the first four months.
Laura Clemens, the responsible-gambling program coordinator for the Ohio Casino Control Commission, attributed the rise in calls to a couple of factors.
There are more gambling options in the state now and the help line number is publicized more, including appearing on all casino materials and advertisements, she said.
The reasons for seeking help also are changing, Clemens said.
Before, 31.4 percent of the callers cited lottery games when they mentioned their gambling problem, but that has fallen to 9.4 percent so far this fiscal year. Meanwhile, 20.5 percent now are reporting problems with slot machines and casino table games, up from 17.1 percent.
The commission also has 163 people participating in the “Voluntary Exclusion” program, which began earlier this year.
“We’re doing really well,” Clemens said about the number. “We’re averaging about 25 a month.”
Under the program, people who know they have a problem apply through the commission to be banned from the casinos for one year, five years or life. Seventy-two people have opted for the lifetime ban, while 37 and 54 wanted the five-year and one-year bans, respectively.
The vast majority of those in the program are men: 118 compared with 45 women.
Not surprising, participants are more likely to live in a county with a casino. Forty live in Cuyahoga County, while 27 and 24 reside in Lucas and Franklin counties, respectively.
In the Akron area, only four people in Summit County and one in Medina County are participating.
No one has signed up so far in Hamilton County, where Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati is expected to open in the spring.
State officials expect thousands of people to sign up eventually. Experts estimate that 1 percent of the population has a severe gambling addiction, and another 4 to 5 percent are problem gamblers.
Justin Gale, a 52-year-old compulsive gambler from Mayfield Heights, was the first person in Ohio to participate in the program. The Beacon Journal profiled his lifelong struggle with betting on horses in May.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gale launched a personal effort to promote the state program.
He stood on Public Square, across the street from Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland, for several hours in 36-degree weather wearing an orange neon hat, orange/yellow neon gloves and a long-sleeve T-shirt that read: “I quit betting. Ask me how.”
He didn’t approach anyone but answered questions for those who asked. He also handed out a tan business card with the gambling help line number and the words “From Justin Gale, first excluded gambler in Ohio via the VEP program.”
“I’m going to be a walking advertisement,” he said. “If people want to talk to me and tell me their life’s story, that’s fine. If they just want a card, that’s fine.
“I know I’m getting a message out … I’ve got to do something. I was just getting antsy to do something on a regular basis.”
The casinos and Scioto Downs racino in Columbus have been major attractions. In October, casino-goers gambled $392 million on slots and $86 million at table games; while $131 million was gambled on the slots-like video lottery terminals at Scioto Downs.
Horseshoe Casino Cleveland boasted 2.6 million visitors within its first six months of operation.
Gale, who is not opposed to casinos in Ohio and applauds people who are able to gamble responsibly, said he will spend 10 to 15 hours a week outside the casino.
Friends have questioned his sanity because he’s starting his effort during the winter. But Gale said he hopes people take him more seriously knowing that he’s committed to trying to help others who might have a problem.
As for his personal problem, “Every day is still a struggle, but I haven’t gambled in 703 days,” he said.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.