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Tennessee gambler addiction program delayed

Tennessee LotteryTennessee Lottery: Tennessee gambler addiction program delayed

Tennessee officials have yet to start a promised $200,000, state-funded treatment program designed to help compulsive gamblers who may be tempted by the Tennessee Lottery, despite hopes by supporters to have the program in place as early as last fall.

Now, the program may not be up and running until June one year after the governor signed off on the proposal.

The state health officials charged with creating the program, which is supposed to include a hot line for problem gamblers to call and training for counselors, said the delay was caused by the complexity in researching a lottery-specific treatment program. Delays also stem from the extensive bidding process to hire those who provide compulsive-gambling treatment, officials said.

But a former gambling addict who called on state leaders last year to create a treatment program called the delay ''almost criminal neglect.''

''They're dragging their feet,'' said John Eades, who beat back a three-year addiction to gambling and is now a minister in Murfreesboro. ''I think it's urgent. There are a lot of people in Tennessee who did not gamble before the lottery. They should have put that program in at the same time they started the lottery.''

The state lottery kicked off just over a year ago amid cheers for the money it would create for college scholarships. So far, the lottery has generated $47.3 million in scholarships and grants for more than 36,600 students.

Critics, though, predicted that the lottery would escalate social ills in Tennessee in the form of increased bankruptcies and a spiking divorce rate.

After turning down more expensive treatment programs, legislators gave their approval in May to spend $200,000 to track the number of addicted gamblers in the state, operate a hot line and train counselors. Gov. Phil Bredesen signed off on the legislation June 8.

To some, that was too small an amount to fight compulsive gambling. South Carolina, in contrast, set aside $1 million from unclaimed prize money to help those addicted to gambling when it launched its lottery in 2002.

And others, particularly those who lobbied the legislature for the program, are unhappy about the delay.

''There seems to be a lack of commitment to the issue of putting in place a mechanism to be prepared for the eventuality of people with gambling-related problems,'' said Bobbie Patray, the state chairwoman of the Eagle Forum, a group that lobbies on family issues and called for a compulsive-gambling treatment program after the lottery launch.

State leaders said there was no ill intent behind the program's delay. The legislation did not set a specific date for the program's launch.

Stephanie Perry, assistant state commissioner of health, said she and her staff were working as quickly as they could to implement the program.

State health officials took much of the fall to survey the state to see what treatment options were available for those who are hooked on lotteries, she said, with the aim of developing a better state program.

''We didn't have an idea. It's new for Tennessee.''

And now, the long process of sending out the proposals to those who might bid to provide treatment will begin. Perry said the Health Department would send out bid invitations Feb. 1.

Help is available in the meantime, she said.

The state contracts with the Tennessee Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, which also serves as a clearinghouse for advice on where to go to treat other addictions, such as those connected with gambling.

The state already provides help and information to assist Tennessee's problem gamblers who frequent casinos in Illinois and Mississippi.

''It's not like people don't have a means to get their needs met,'' Perry said.

There certainly has been no cry from the public to speed up the implementation of a lottery-specific, compulsive-gambling program.

Despite the dire predictions from lottery critics of booming bankruptcy rates and increased divorce filings, it appears there are fewer people going broke and more people staying married.

In several counties in Middle Tennessee, the number of couples filing for divorce has dropped.

In Davidson, for example, the number of divorce filings in 2004 dropped to 2,540 compared with 2,668 in 2003, when the lottery did not exist.

Tennessee's bankruptcy filings, in general, appear to have dropped, too, when compared with figures for the year before the state lottery began, according to George Yacik, the vice president of SMR Research Corp., a New Jersey-based firm that tracks financial trends.

State Sen. Steve Cohen, the Memphis Democrat who championed the creation of a state lottery to help more students get into college, said that many critics made ''tsunami-like predictions'' about the social ills that would befall the state when residents started buying lottery tickets.

''I never thought the lottery would have any effect whatsoever on bankruptcies and marriage,'' he said. ''There were a lot of Chicken Littles out there.''

There are plenty of lottery players throughout the state who agree with Cohen, such as Joseph P. Bentley Jr., a Mt. Juliet man who won a $100,000 jackpot the day after the governor signed the as-of-yet nonexistent treatment program into law.

Bentley said he recalled the debate over the social ills the creation of the lottery supposedly would spawn and said he had seen no evidence that Tennessee was any worse off for having PowerBall, Cash 3 or Lotto 5 available at convenience stores.

''I haven't really heard or seen anything bad about this. I haven't seen anyone blowing all their money on the lottery. Most people have better sense than that.''

Tennessee Lottery officials also say they have seen no evidence of social problems stemming from the lottery.

While those who opposed the creation of the lottery admit they have seen no upswing in the problems they predicted, they also say that one year is not long enough for those problems to manifest themselves.

''I believe that we will see, over time, some problems, because other states have experienced problems,'' the Eagle Forum's Patray said. ''For as surely as day follows night, gambling for some will become a problem.''

A member of Nashville's Gamblers Anonymous group said he had seen the first addicts directly related to the lottery recently walk through the door. And Charles ''Skip'' Armistead, a minister with Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Franklin who opposed a state lottery, predicted that the number of those with gambling problems would only increase.

He fears that, because the lottery is so popular, the problems that he said stem from the games will have to get very bad for people to reject the lottery.

''It's a deceptive, insidious form of gambling. It's hard to see the relationship between buying a piece of paper and the consequences down the road. The effects are coming.''

Armistead cites problems that gambling has created in other states. He refers to one report in 1999 that stated that compulsive gambling in Georgia, soon after the introduction of the lottery there, created increased costs connected with gambling addicts.

This is why a treatment program is needed now, say people such as Murfreesboro's Eades, who said his path to addiction began with lottery tickets.

''I got addicted pretty quickly. Not to have a hot line? That's irresponsible government, to me.''

If you need help

Gamblers Anonymous: For those seeking help with a problem with compulsive gambling, including possible problems with buying lottery tickets, the Nashville area chapter of Gamblers Anonymous can be reached at 254-6454.

Tennessee Redline: Tennessee Department of Health officials say that, while they are creating a hot line for those who may have a problem with compulsive gambling in connection with the lottery, residents who feel they have a problem can get information from the Tennessee REDLINE at 1-800-889-9789.

The REDLINE is an information and referral line coordinated by the Tennessee Association of Alcohol & Drug Abuse Services, but can refer callers for help with compulsive gambling.

Tennessean

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