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My Turn: Casinos prey on elderly residents

Last modified: 3/13/2014 1:38:15 AM
As New Hampshire lawmakers debate whether to legalize casinos, they should think about Kensington Police Chief Michael Sielicki’s mother.

Sielicki’s mom moved to Arizona after her husband died in 2004. At the time, she had no mortgage on her home, no car payments and no credit-card debt. She had sizeable cash assets, thanks to the sale of three other properties, stock market investments and Social Security.

But then Sielicki’s mother started to go to the local casino. She enjoyed the free lunch, and she played slot machines and later table games. Initially, Sielicki thought his mom’s casino outings were innocent fun. Two years ago, Sielicki visited his mother and they went to the casino.

He was alarmed that the valet, doorman and casino workers knew his mom by her first name. Several asked about her pets. Eventually Sielicki learned his mom had lost tens of thousands of dollars gambling. Most of her savings was gone, and she now borrows money from family to pay basic expenses.

“It was clear these people befriended my mom and preyed on here,” Sielicki said.

Sielicki’s mom is not alone. Many casinos target seniors. Bus trips, free buffets and discount medicine are just some of the ways casinos lure in seniors. Nearly half the casino visitors in 2012 were over age 50.

University of Pennsylvania addiction researcher David Oslin found that 70 percent of seniors surveyed had gambled the previous year and that one in 10 bet more than he or she could afford to lose.

Fayetta Martin, an assistant professor at Wayne State University, has studied how gambling addiction is associated with other mental health and substance issues. She said the casino industry enabled the problems.

“During my research and visits to the casinos, I noticed that the casino was supplying older adults with scooters and wheelchairs,” Martin said in a 2009 interview with Social Work Today magazine. “Many even provided oxygen. In the bathroom, there were boxes for diabetics to dispose needles. Older adults told me stories of how the casinos always remember their birthday, and if they stayed away too long, the casino would send them a card saying that they were missed.”

New Hampshire’s graying population makes it is a target market for casinos. By 2030, almost one-third of Granite Staters will be over age 65, according to the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy.

Casinos are being billed as tourist destinations, but unlike Las Vegas most of the gamblers at a New Hampshire casino will come from within the state. Yes, New Hampshire will generate tax revenue from casino gambling. But that money will come mainly from the pockets of residents, including many seniors on fixed incomes.

Studies show that anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of slots players are repeat and problem gamblers. The casino industry argues the addiction rate is 3 to 5 percent. But that figure is for the overall population, not casino customers. Even an addiction rate of 5 percent would equal more than 66,000 New Hampshire residents.

What lawmaker would enact a policy knowing that tens of thousands of residents would become addicted and face financial ruin as a result?

Sadly, some elected officials think gambling is a good public policy. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who led the effort to legalize slots in his state, said casinos were a bright spot for many seniors “who lead very gray lives.”

“They don’t see their sons and daughters very much,” Rendell said during a 2006 speech. “They don’t have much social interaction. There’s not a whole lot of good things that happen in their month. But if you put them on the bus, they’re excited. They’re happy. They have fun. They see bright lights. They hear music. They pull that slot machine, and with each pull they think they have a chance to win. It’s unbelievable what brightness and cheer it brings to older Pennsylvanians. Unbelievable.”

New Hampshire can do better than bet on its residents to lose money. Lawmakers have a duty to protect vulnerable citizens, including the elderly. Legalizing a casino will encourage many seniors like Sielicki’s mom to become addicted. That would be unbelievable.

(Paul Davies is the Maggie Walker Fellow at the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank in New York, where he edits a gambling blog and is the author of “Stacked Deck: Inside New York’s Dishonest Casino Plan.”)

UPDATE: This story was updated on March 13, 2014, to correct Police Chief Michael Sielicki’s town.


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