Whose Problem are Problem Gamblers ?

Central Statistic

Graphic by Dave Colavito, 2014 data from Grinols and Omorov 1996-97

On 24 April 2014  I sent to the Director for Policy,  Development and External Affairs of the NYS Gaming Commission the following  e-note with two attachments, one of which was   posted yesterday on the CAGNY web site below a copy of the April 24  cover e-note, repeated here.

Dear Sir,

Attached are two documents I earnestly hope the Chairman and all the Commissioners will read carefully and discuss with the  GFLB.  Both are about “problem gambling,” the subject of the April 9 forum convened by the Gaming Commission. Watching the videotape and reading the transcript (everyone should thank the GC for providing these so fast) I saw  that “problem gambling” was an elusive term.  The extreme importance to the casino economy of net losses from problem gamblers was nowhere mentioned except when the speaker from Caesars deflected  the issue.  Yet around the “central statistic of casino revenues,” on which I have written to the Commission, is the “central dilemma” of regulation: the better the regulation is at preventing problem gambling, the lower is the casinos’ profit margin.

Selected prevalence statistics were presented as if they are the be-all and the end-all of gambling behavior studies.  They are about all we have, but a poor stand-in for what we really want to know about time trends in social impacts, i.e.  incidence and duration.  Under the placid surface of what looks like stable prevalence,  much new damage continues; as problem gamblers recover or die, new ones must be recruited to take their places.

As I have offered before, I’m  [ready]  almost any time to meet with the Commissioners and staff to explain the critiques in more detail and to talk about “the central statistic.”

Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely, etc.

Stephen Q. Shafer, MD, MA,  MPH Chairperson, Coalition Against Gambling in New York 917 453 7371 http://cagnyinf.org  [ Cover note ends here]

 

No surprise,  the Commission has not responded to these  unsolicited comments. Does that mean the Commissioners have all accepted the assurances (see below) of  the Executive from Caesars Entertainment that the organization does not make money from “problem gamblers” and does ” not want them in [their] venues?”  If yes, it is a monumental  mistake.  I cannot speak for Caesars Entertainment in particular, but it would  be unique  if it does not make money from what most people call problem gamblers To  wrongly  assume Ms Shatley’s artful  discounting  of problem gamblers fits all casinos  would be an easy stretch  to make,  even if Caesars is unique. It would be worse yet if the attitude “casinos don’t want problem gamblers” were communicated to the Gaming Facilities Location Board members.  The GFLB is charged to consider plans by applicants to address problem gambling. The Board must understand how important problem gamblers are to the casino exchange.

Below is the text of the second attachment  that was sent to the Gaming Commission  on April 24, slightly revised.  The text of the other attachment sent the same day  was posted yesterday on this web site along with the cover e-note.

In the April 9 forum on problem gambling no speaker addressed forthrightly the conflict of interest that casinos and government regulators have in preventing “problem gambling.” Problem gamblers provide about half the gross gambling revenues of the average casino; highly effective prevention (which can in the tertiary stage include guidance to lasting recovery) would reduce corporate revenues and government’s share thereof by up to 50%. The only mention of this central statistic (half of revenues from problem gamblers) was this by Ms. Jennifer Shatley, (Vice-President for Responsible Gaming and Compliance, Caesars Entertainment)  in response to a question about “the problem gambler:” “WE DON’T WANT THEM IN OUR VENUES AND I THINK SOMETIMES THERE’S A PERCEPTION THAT WE MAKE MONEY OFF OF PROBLEM GAMBLERS AND THAT’S NOT TRUE.”

Was this an outright denial of the central statistic ,  evidence for which is compiled on our organization’s web site in an earlier post ? Or was it an adroit parry , letting Ms Shatley say correctly that there is a certain subset of “problem gamblers” whom the casino does not welcome?  Reading and watching the video I think it was the latter, spun so that most readers or hearers would take it as the first. Yet the central statistic (lion’s share of revenue from problem gamblers) is irrefutable by now. Not only do casinos want problem gamblers, they need them to maximize profits.

Below is part of the transcript of Ms Shatley’s talk that was provided soon after the forum.   I have made a few changes in it, not tried to clarify every possible mis-hearing. The original transcript is all in CAPS.  My changes are in [lower case  in brackets] Lines have been made longer to save paper in printing. In a question and answer around 5:32:40 of the video I have identified speakers and corrected a mis-transcription of “problem gambler” to “operator.”

>> [Commissioner Sample] YOU TALKED ABOUT A NUMBER OF SUPPORT ABOUT PROBLEM GAMBLERS AND ADDRESSING THE ISSUE, EVEN THROUGH EMPLOYEES, FROM AN INDUSTRY STANDPOINT, DOES THE PROBLEM GAMBLER POSE A PROBLEM FOR [ an operator?]  [transcript reads “FOR THE PROBLEM GAMBLER”] [aprox 5:32:40]

>> [Ms Shatley]WE DON’T WANT THEM IN OUR VENUES AND I THINK SOMETIMES THERE’S A PERCEPTION THAT WE MAKE MONEY OFF OF PROBLEM GAMBLERS AND THAT’S NOT TRUE. THEY ARE NOT GOOD FOR BUSINESS. WE DON’T WANT THEM THERE. THEY CAUSE PROBLEMS. THEY ARE PROBLEM GAMBLERS.SO I THINK THAT IS ONE THING. BUT I WOULD RESTATE THAT —

>> [Commissioner Sample] WHEN YOU SAY THEY CAUSE PROBLEMS, YOU MEAN?

>> [Ms Shatley] THE PROBLEM GAMBLER. IN THE VENUE.

>> [Commissioner Sample] WHAT TYPES OF THINGS?

>> [Ms Shatley] THEY CAN BE DISRUPTIVE, THEY CAUSE ISSUES WITH OTHER GUESTS, THEY ARE TRYING TO BORROW MONEY. THEY ARE JUST NOT GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT.

>> [Commissioner Sample says “Disruptive customers, essentially, is what you’re saying” though transcript reads] IT’S A PROBLEM CUSTOMER

>> [Ms Shatley] CORRECT. [Transcript has next line with >> mark indicating a different speaker , but she continues with “They are not good customers.”]

>> THEY ARE NOT GOOD CUSTOMERS. SO WE DON’T WANT THEM IN THE VENUE. BUT I ALSO THINK THAT ONE IMPORTANT THING THAT I WOULD SAY YOU NEED AND I THINK IT’S BEEN TALKED ABOUT A LOT THOUGH, IS YOU NEED THE INFRASTRUCTURE WITHIN THE STATE FOR US TO SEND THEM TO SOMEONE.

The speaker, using a questioner’s own words, morphs “the problem gamblers” into “disruptive customers,” [the spoken phrase] or [in the transcript] “a problem customer” then into “not good customers.” This diverts attention from the full picture of problem gamblers and their importance to the bottom line of the average casino. Of course no casino wants disruptive customers; Ms Shatley speaks truth there. Sophisticated operations like Caesars have replaced the bum’s rush with high technology and employee training in which describing sources of help to the person is the preferred alternative to calling security.   The Caesars RG2 system looks like a model for tactfully offering assistance to gamblers who are problem customers. Its focus on this group, however, overlooks a much more populous and therefore more remunerative class, that of customers who are problem gamblers but mind their own business, don’t flaunt “red flags.” That’s where the money is (Sutton’s Law).

From Ms Shatley’s talk it is hard to know her definition of “problem gambler” or of “problem gambling.”   This allows her to segue away entirely from the economics of “problem gambling,”   thus to avoid mention of what more a casino company could do than it does now to lessen the harmful grip of gambling on certain individuals, their families, friends, kin and associates.

The Commissioners and their colleagues on the Location Board must not let applicants for a casino license skirt the “central statistic.” Applicants must be queried about it. It belies statements from the casino exchange and the American Gaming Association that they don’t want to create or attract problem gamblers.   Applicants must also be required to define “problem gambler” as precisely as possible so that the Commission can know whom the casinos truly want to keep out or keep in.

Commissioners, ask yourselves what a modern casino could or might do to spot customers who are problem gamblers before they threaten suicide (or do it), before the repo man comes, before the office audit, before the college fund is gone.  In a casino where all money flow and “play” patterns are tracked by a computer, there are many methods possible. Then ask why, if casinos really want to end problem gambling, they don’t employ  any of those methods that Dr. Sarah Nelson and colleagues have been exploring. See Gray, H.M., LaPlante, D.A. & Shaffer, H.J.(2012). Behavioral characteristics of Internet gamblers who trigger corporate responsible gambling interventions. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 26 (3), 527–535. Using electronic player cards it would be relatively easy to identify a small proportion of customers most of whom have a gambling problem. But what to do with the knowledge?   Aye, there’s the rub.

The Gaming Commission should be commended for videotaping its events and providing a transcript right away.

The writer, Stephen Q. Shafer MD, MA, MPH retired in 2010 as Clinical Professor of Neurology at Harlem Hospital Center, Columbia University. He lives in Saugerties NY. He is Chairperson of Coalition Against Gambling in New York, a non-profit organization registered in Buffalo, for which he receives no pay.   sqs1@columbia.edu or shpcount@earthlink.net   917 453 7371

The opinions in this post are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of any or all members of CAGNY.   Permission is hereby granted to reproduce in part or in whole as long as the permalink above is cited.