Some in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Lincoln communities are concerned that a lotto promotion at a UNL restaurant sent the wrong message to students about gambling.
In a promotion that ended Sunday, the Subway restaurant at the Nebraska Union gave away about 9,000 coupons for free Nebraska scratch tickets during a four-week period, according to the restaurant's manager, Jennifer Acklin.
Deb Hammond, director of Choices, a gambling treatment center in Lincoln, said the promotion was a concern because it gave the impression that gambling was innocuous.
"Like addiction to alcohol, gambling addiction starts small," Hammond said. "It's a progressive disease."
In addition, students who are not of age to buy lottery tickets very likely have received the scratch ticket coupons, she said.
Lotto, keno, horse race betting and bingo are all legal forms of gambling in Nebraska, but a person can participate only if he or she is 19 or older.
Despite UNL's focus on reducing student drinking at UNL, some addiction treatment professionals consider gambling a vice even worse than substance abuse.
Dawna Prietauer, coordinator of gambling treatment services at First Step Recovery & Wellness Center in Lincoln, said gamblers often have a longer road to recovery than drug addicts.
"Often by the time gamblers get help, they have financial issues, their family might need mending and there may be legal issues," Prietauer said. "It takes longer to get through all that, usually one or two years."
The rush gamblers feel is similar to using cocaine, she said, though the drive to gamble can be even stronger.
"I once knew a guy who was addicted to cocaine and gambling, and when he had ran out of money, he chose gambling," she said. "It's a pretty powerful thing."
About 80 percent of the population can gamble normally, while 20 percent experience problem or compulsive gambling, Hammond said.
Problem gambling can bring pain to the gambler's life and family, while compulsive gambling is characterized by preoccupation with gambling and a continuation with the behavior despite the adverse consequences, experts say.
Linda Major, director of Student Involvement at UNL, said she wasn't aware of the scratch ticket promotion at Subway, but she considers student drinking to be a more serious issue.
"It's not clear to me how large a problem student gambling is, but I don't think it rises to the same level as alcohol," she said.
Last month, because of pressure from NU Directions, UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady, the privately owned Nebraska Bookstore withdrew a promotion that offered a free beer to students who bought their textbooks there.
The word "beer" was displayed prominently in the ad.
"I believe in marketing and advertising, but the line got crossed," Major said.
Despite not knowing about the Subway promotion, she said she was interested in learning more about UNL student gambling habits.
Little data exists on the subject, but according to data gathered by First Step, 6 percent of gamblers who call the Nebraska Compulsive Gambling Helpline are college-aged, between 18 and 24.
Sports betting is illegal in Nebraska but rampant on campus, Hammond said, judging from the calls she gets from UNL students.
"Part of the reason it's so easy is because there are so many bookies," she said. "It's widespread among campus without a doubt. If they hide beer kegs, they're hiding the bookie sheets."
Students often get hooked on gambling by a big win early on, Prietauer said, and usually get into trouble with credit cards, which provide easy access to cash advances.
A 23-year-old graduate of UNL, who asked to be called "John" for this story, filed bankruptcy after borrowing about $40,000 from credit cards to gamble.
"It's a lot bigger on campus than everybody thinks," John said. "There's always someone who knows someone else who knows a bookie."
John said he had been in treatment for his gambling problem for a month and a half.
Gail Lockard, a psychologist with the Counseling and Psychological Services department at the UNL Health Center, said the issue merited further investigation.
"It's a reasonably serious problem that's terribly underreported and under-explored," Lockard said. "There are so many informal ways a person can get started and get snagged on gambling."
Gambling opportunities include betting through a bookie, fantasy sports, office pools and Internet gambling, one of the fastest forms of gambling.
Students often don't seek treatment because they rationalize the addiction is benign, Lockard said.
"In their minds, they're keeping it all together, so they won't see someone like me," she said.
Kyle Arganbright, president of the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, said blocking promotions on campus that include alcohol or gambling messages wasn't necessary.
"We've got to realize that we can't protect students from every sin in society," Arganbright said.
Putting pressure on Nebraska Bookstore to pull its beer-for-books promotion was unjustified, he said.
"If (Subway hands) out a coupon for one free scratch ticket, that's pretty reasonable. If (the bookstore hands) out a coupon for one free beer, that's pretty reasonable," he said. "It's keeping within moderation."
Gary Bargen, director of compliance in the NU Athletics Department, said he talked to members of all NU sports teams each year about the potential dangers of gambling, but only from the standpoint of eligibility for the team.
"We assure them that there are students on campus involved in organized gambling," Bargen said, "and we want to make sure our players aren't unwittingly participating in sports gambling, which would make them ineligible to play for the team."
Janet Crawford, director of community health at the UNL Health Center, said that while no one in the department was trained specifically in dealing with student gambling issues, a student with a gambling problem would not be turned away from the center.
"If students come to us for help, we'll refer them to the right services in the community," Crawford said. "We won't leave them hanging."