In her mid-30s, Suzanne Slavich walked into a bar in her coastal Oregon town. She wasn’t feeling fulfilled in her life. As she sat pensively at the bar, she saw the video lottery machine across the room. She didn’t gamble much, but she thought she would give it a spin.
It wasn’t long before a couple of dollars turned into $150 in winnings. It was easy money. So she kept playing and kept winning. It felt like she was always winning.
“It seemed very innocent in the beginning,” Slavich says.
Soon, she wanted to play constantly. But the more she gambled, the more she lost.
Slavich began lying to her family about where she was going. She lied about why she didn’t have money. She lost interest in hobbies like fishing and traveling.
“It’s almost like our personality changes,” she says.
Her mind became consumed with playing the video lottery machines, primarily poker.
Slavich says the addiction put so many things at risk: her family, her home, her bank account and her dignity.
“It pretty much robs us of everything that is good in our lives,” she says.
As of January, Slavich hasn’t gambled in 15 years. She sought out help and now spends her time counseling others who are facing the same addiction. She takes medication and regularly attends support groups. Today, Slavich says, she no longer struggles with compulsive gambling.
“I look back and I can’t believe that I did this and thought that it was OK to do.”
Slavich is not alone. The Oregon Health Authority estimates that 2.6 percent of adult Oregonians experience moderate or serious problems with gambling.
According to Greta Coe, who directs the Oregon Problem Gambling Resource program, electronic machines like those used for playing video lottery are the most addictive form of gambling.
“They’re the most impactful on the brain,” says Coe. And the majority of her clients claim them as their preferred game.
According to a report from the Oregon Gambling Services Unit, 88.1 percent of those in the state-run treatment program last year listed video gambling as their primary gambling activity. Video Lottery retailers were the preferred gambling locations for 71.4 percent.
Unlike casinos with similar machines, retailers who host video lottery terminals are widespread. Most communities in Oregon have them. Meanwhile, Oregon has only eight casinos.
Much like addiction to alcohol and drugs, compulsive gambling is a brain disease, says Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of the Gambling Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The disease stems from a combination of problems, including biological risk factors like genetics, psychological risk factors like personality traits and social risk factors like ease of access to gambling opportunities.
“There’s never just one single cause,” says Fong.
“In every case that we see, the story is a little bit different,” he says. Some people have a greater genetic risk factor. Others live very close to gambling facilities. Others encounter a combination of many things.
Those who suffer with gambling addictions are more likely to commit suicide than those suffering from other addictions. They’re also more likely to have suicidal thoughts, says Fong.
“Think about what it’s like to lose large amounts of money in a single evening or to be so far in debt and that debt being hidden away from your family and friends,” he says. “The desperation you must feel knowing you can’t erase that debt for years. It’s very shameful and gets people into a very desperate state where ultimately they do really harmful things.”
For most people, this will not become an issue.
“The majority of people who do gamble, they do so without developing problems,” says Fong. The obsession with gambling and the craving to gamble aren’t there for most people, as they are for compulsive gamblers.
Yet, expanding gambling does expand the number of people with gambling problems, he says.
“The more you have that’s available, the more you have that’s affordable, the more you have that’s anonymous in nature, you’re going to draw people out who will play and you’re going to draw people out who are vulnerable to problems.”
To combat this, Oregon has been a national leader in funding treatment for compulsive gamblers. It was through the state’s gambling treatment services that Slavich originally found help.
Oregon Problem Gambling Resource contracts with professionals around the state, offering treatment to those suffering with the addiction and to loved ones affected by it. These services are free to any Oregonian or any person out of state who plays Oregon lottery games.
Despite the thousands of people who could benefit from this kind of treatment, however, the state’s gambling treatment program has the capacity to serve more.
“They just don’t seem to come as frequently and as easily,” says Coe. This fact, she says, could be related to the stigma around problem gambling.
“We actually have to go out and do certain efforts to draw them in and to find them.”
As part of these efforts, the program offers a 24-hour help line for people seeking help to talk with a gambling specialist and get referrals to local treatment resources and agencies. Some of the other services Oregon Program Gambling Resource provides are free assessments, one-on-one counseling, group counseling, phone-based counseling, financial counseling, ongoing support and aftercare planning.
One percent of Oregon’s lottery revenue goes into funding this treatment. Of the $1.2 billion of revenue that the lottery brought in to the state legislature in the 2015-17 biennium, about $11.3 million was budgeted for these gambling treatment services.
Entering the 2017 legislative session, Oregon’s lawmakers face a gap of $1.7 billion in what they planned to spend and what they are expected to receive in revenue. Closing this budget shortfall will be painful. Budget cuts and tax increases will be considered.
The lottery brings in a substantial amount of money for lawmakers and Oregon services.
“If we didn’t have the lottery, we would be in even much more desperate shape than we are now,” says Oregon State Sen. Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin). Devlin co-chairs the Oregon Senate Committee on Ways and Means.
Funding from the lottery goes toward public education, economic development, county fairs, parks, natural resources and now veterans’ services, among other programs.
Devlin stops short of making the judgement that the lottery does more good than harm.
“But I will tell you that it does a lot of good,” he says. Many school children in Oregon’s public schools are dependent upon lottery revenue, says the senator. He added that it contributes to the state parks system, the expansion of local businesses and capital projects.
For recovering compulsive gamblers like Slavich, a fear of cuts to the state’s gambling treatment program is persistent.
“There’s absolutely no discussion, I don’t think we would even entertain the discussion at all, of reducing the amount that goes to the gambling addiction treatment program,” assures Devlin.
The senator says he would never support cuts to the program, nor does he believe the majority of Democrat or Republican legislative members would support it.
Revenue from lottery games has declined since its peak in 2008. According to financial statements from the Oregon Lottery dating back to 2015, lottery operating revenues were nearly $60 million lower in 2015 than in 2008.
Is it worth it?
Devlin recalls a better economic time in the state where lawmakers discussed the possibility of phasing out lottery revenue. But the discussion never got far because of the legislature’s dependence on the revenue, even then.
“If we did not have the lottery revenue, we would desperately need to replace it with something else,” says Sen. Devlin. “And I don’t know how receptive Oregonians would be to paying higher taxes.”
Just by prohibiting smoking in public places like bars and restaurants, the legislature lost significant lottery revenue, says Devlin.
The lottery in Oregon was created out of a ballot initiative in 1984. The initiative was approved by the state’s voters with a two-to-one margin.
“Ultimately, the demand for gambling, I don’t think, will ever go away,” says Fong.
“Humans and especially Americans love to gamble,” he says. “Every time you try and get rid of it, it doesn’t go away. People just do it underground.”
“The church doesn’t condemn games of chance,” says Todd Cooper, who represents the Oregon Catholic Conference for the Archdiocese of Portland. The conference advocates the pastoral teaching of Oregon’s bishops at the state and national levels.
Gambling is not condemned, says Cooper, unless the needs of the player or their dependents are infringed upon because of the gambling.
When state legislatures are examining revenue streams from potentially addictive things like video lottery machines, they must analyze the social costs that accompany it, he points out. They need to decide whether the benefits outweigh the harm or if the revenue should be dialed back, he says.
Addictions can ultimately weigh on society, says Cooper.
“Is it worth it in the end?” he asks.
If you or someone you know is struggling with gambling, call 1-877-MY-LIMIT.