Defining a Dark Allure

The recent revelation that former San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor had reportedly embezzled more than $2 million from a charitable foundation to feed her gambling addiction has focused attention on pathological gambling.

Experts speculated that video poker was her escape from a series of personal setbacks; she claims that her problem gambling was exacerbated by a brain tumor. Whatever the case, O’Connor lost what seems to outsiders to be a staggering amount of money over years of frequenting casinos nationwide. The question is, How could it have been prevented?

That’s a question that problem-gambling researchers worldwide would love to answer, but there is still much we don’t know. We have studies on co-morbidity with other addictions and impulse-control disorders, longitudinal studies of the careers of problem gamblers, and investigations into environmental risk factors for gambling problems. But there’s still no single, objective yardstick by which an outsider could look at a gambler and say, “Yes, this person will have a problem.”

It’s even difficult to clinically define what a problem gambler is. Obviously when we see someone who is millions of dollars in debt and has allegedly stolen money to gamble, that person has a problem. But what about someone who loses $100 and sinks into depression? What about someone who breaks even, but who spends an inordinate amount of time gambling? Like many other dysfunctional behaviors, a gambling problem seems clear in hindsight, but as it’s unfolding, it may be difficult for others to spot—particularly if the gambler is determined to cover her tracks.

In cases such as O’Connor’s, there are no easy answers. Could we create a system in which casino employees somehow know that a person is gambling more than he or she can afford to lose? Possibly, but that would mean vastly changing how Americans visit casinos. Would you be willing to bring a pay stub and your previous year’s tax return to explain to a casino manager why you should be allowed to continue gambling after losing “too much”?

The lack of objective diagnostic criteria, the difficulty of preventing problem gamblers from making ruinous decisions and the privacy issues involved in any effort to assert outside control over one’s gambling make it likely that problem gambling will continue to evade early detection and easy answers.

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