More than a thousand would-be gamblers have banned themselves from Ohio casinos and racinos, and many risk arrest if they return to the facilities they pledged to avoid.
The Ohio Casino Control Commission’s Voluntary Exclusion Program was launched two years ago and currently includes 981 names. The Ohio Lottery, which oversees operations at the state’s racinos, has 218 names on its list.
Matt Schuler, executive director of the casino commission, said the program has teeth and that security workers are familiar with many of the gamblers on the lists. The casinos have conducted 83 investigations of potential violators and 78 people have been charged with trespassing.
“If someone (on the list) enters the casino facility they can be charged with criminal trespassing and their gambling winnings can be confiscated,” Schuler said. “What that’s designed to do is take away what may draw them into the casino. Even if they snuck in and had some winnings, they have to walk away empty-handed and potentially with a criminal charge.”
Program violators have forfeited $28,552 in winnings, according to the casino commission. That money goes to the Problem Gambling Resource Fund.
Those who sign up for the program at casinos have to fill out paperwork and discuss their decisions with gaming agents, the enforcement arm of the casinos.
Voluntary bans can last one year, five years or a lifetime. Experts say the exclusion program is a good step, but likely draws only a small amount of problem gamblers.
“That’s probably a fraction of the percentage of people who have gambling disorder,” said Dr. Ryan Peirson, chief clinical officer for the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Montgomery County.
“It’s going to take a certain kind of person to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I want to do this, go to that location to fill out paperwork.’ ”
Bruce Jones coordinates the gambling intervention program at Maryhaven in Columbus. He has worked with clients who fight the urge to go back to the casinos.
“It’s part of that addiction, the risk involved and the compulsion,” Jones said. “I’ve had some that have put on sunglasses or a scarf over their head and snuck in.”
Because gambling is relatively new in Ohio, few statistics exist to measure its reach. But Peirson calls it a “real issue.”
“Problem gambling is now classified as its own disorder,” he said. “It affects the brain very similarly to substances. The reward system that reinforces behavior in our brain is activated similarly when people gamble or use drugs.”
Agents on the lookout
Schuler said it is difficult, but not impossible, for someone on the banned list to return to a casino.
“Our gaming agents at each facility are familiar with those who have enrolled and could observe them on the floor,” Schuler said. “The same thing is true for the security and surveillance personnel. They have pictures of the individuals and it’s their job to be familiar with them.”
Each of Ohio’s four casinos has 11 gaming agents, an investigator and a supervisor. Many of the agents are former law enforcement members and all agents have full arrest authority on the casino floor, OCCC spokeswoman Tama Davis said.
Each of the state’s five racinos have self-exclusion programs. Miami Valley Gaming has 40 people working in its security department, and the Warren County racino has signed up people for 1-year bans, said Jeff Nelson, senior director of marketing.
“There are some people that get in over there head,” Nelson said. “While they’re getting that help they need to know they’ve restricted themselves, so in a moment of unclarity they’re not going to do anything that could potentially hurt themselves.”
Racino security doesn’t have the power to arrest, but if customers get too unruly local law enforcement could be called.
Ohio’s fledgling program is growing monthly, but its numbers pale in comparison to neighboring states. Indiana has more than 5,000 members in its voluntary exclusion program; there are 13 casinos in the Hoosier State.
There are 107 citizens from Montgomery and Warren counties on the Indiana list, but only nine from those two counties on Ohio’s exclusion list. A total of 417 people from Hamilton County have banned themselves in Indiana, but only 55 from the large southwest Ohio county have done so in their home state.
In Pennsylvania, 6,930 people have asked to be placed on the state’s self-exclusion list. In a June 1 report, the state identified 1,470 known violations.
Michigan offers only lifetime bans in its program and 3,432 people have signed up since 2001. West Virginia has 284 people on its list.
Those banning themselves in neighboring states tend to be older than participants in Ohio. The 51-55 age group in Indiana had the most names on the list. In Ohio, the 30-and-under demographic had the most participants.
Schuler said that is because Ohio targets younger citizens in its gambling prevention messages.
“Our first baseline poll of those with gambling problems in Ohio indicated there were about 200,000 with a serious gambling problem and a significant risk population were people 18 to 35,” he said.
Maryhaven’s Jones said the number of people seeking services at his facility, which is funded to offer free services to problem gamblers, has “nearly doubled since the casinos opened.”
Men make up 74 percent of those on Ohio’s voluntary exclusion program list, and Jones’ experience seems to indicate that more men are now seeking professional help.
“When I first started this (2010), the majority of my clients, probably three-quarters of them, were middle-aged white females. They’re more the escape gambler,” he said. “Now we’re about 50-50 male-female. And our ages have come down a little bit.”
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