N.H. late to the game in funding treatment for problem gamblers

  • Ed Talbot, head of the state’s commission on problem gambling, holds the phone he uses to take calls concerning gambling issues. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/1/2017 11:30:56 PM

The calls come in when Ed Talbot is counseling clients, driving back to his Madison home or browsing the produce aisle at the grocery store.

The voices on the other end are often anxious, worried, desperate. They want help for loved ones addicted to making bets, at times the callers themselves are the ones in trouble.

Talbot, who turns 75 in August, is one of their only options. The iPhone he carries with him is the state’s hotline for problem gamblers, which Talbot has manned since its inception two years ago.

“You want to strike while the iron is hot, if they make the call you want to be able to respond,” said Talbot, executive director of the New Hampshire Council on Problem Gambling, a nonprofit. “They win the next bet, and it’s ‘see you later.’ ”

Despite being the first state to profit off legalizing the lottery, New Hampshire is one of the last to dedicate a portion of earnings to help treat compulsive gamblers.

Only this year, after Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signs a bill authorizing keno, will a small percentage of the state’s roughly $77.5 million annual lottery profits be funneled into treatment.

Currently, no public money is earmarked to that purpose and the state has little infrastructure to help the estimated 22,000 residents believed to have gambling problems. Unlike Massachusetts, New Hampshire has never set up a process to certify gambling addiction counselors, Talbot said.

“It is very disconcerting,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “The state has an important role to play providing that safety net.”

Compulsive gambling can be devastating and lead to bankruptcy, substance abuse, anxiety, depression and even suicide. Talbot knows all of that first hand.

Working at a dog track for more than a decade, Talbot bet on the greyhounds, a habit that slowly escalated into addiction. As he spent more and more time gambling, his home life grew worse. Talbot missed his daughter’s school functions and went into marriage counseling. On her deathbed in 1976, Talbot’s mother warned him that if he didn’t stop gambling he would lose everything.

“The next day she passed away and I spent the next year of my life proving her absolutely right,” Talbot recalls. “I lost my job, my family, I had no self esteem at all.”

Using the last money he had, Talbot made his final bet in 1977. Days later, he showed up to a support group in Massachusetts. It took him the next eight years to pay off all his debts.

Now he wants to help others. A few years ago Talbot, who has had a house in the state for more than two decades, helped launch the New Hampshire Council on Problem Gambling.

“I can’t tell you how much better my life is,” he said. “All the things that I saw other people had and they loved and I couldn’t understand it, I was so enraptured with gambling. Today I have those things, and I always felt I can help somebody else.”

The council operates on a shoestring budget, comprised mainly of an annual $25,000 donation from the Lottery Commission. Two years ago the council submitted to the state a five-year plan to address problem gambling, but there’s been no money to fund it, Talbot said.

The keno bill now requires 1 percent of the profits raised go to the state’s health department to help problem gamblers. Since the funding is tied to keno’s popularity, it’s hard to tell exactly how much money will be raised.

Even then, the dollars aren’t necessarily a guarantee.

Almost two decades ago lawmakers decided to send 5 percent of state liquor profits into a fund for substance abuse treatment. Lawmakers then raided the fund almost every year afterward to help pay for other government functions. Amid the state’s ongoing opioid crisis, lawmakers two years ago slashed the funding formula to 1.7 percent. This year they raised it back up to 3.4 percent.

It’s not clear how the money meant to treat compulsive gamblers will be used, but it is set to be managed by the state’s Department for Health and Human Services.

Few services currently exist. The National Council on Problem Gambling lists no counselors in New Hampshire. Three gamblers anonymous groups meet only in the southern tier of the state.

Though the exact number of compulsive gamblers in the state is unknown, there are signs of a problem.

Talbot estimates he gets between six and 12 calls a month. Before his phone number was publicized on the council’s website, the Massachusetts helpline usually fielded between 400 and 500 calls a year from New Hampshire residents, Talbot said. Even more were directed to the National Council on Problem Gambling, which contracted with the Louisiana state helpline to cover calls from New Hampshire, according to its website.

Roughly 60 percent of adults in New Hampshire played lottery last year, according to the state Lottery Commission. In its most recent report from 2013, the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates about 2.2 percent of adults in the state had a gambling disorder.

“If you think 1 percent is not that much, it’s a bunch of folks,” said Charles McIntyre, executive director of the New Hampshire Lottery. “These are problems we want to avoid.”

Even though services for problem gamblers may soon become state-funded, Talbot doesn’t anticipate he will stop answering the New Hampshire’s helpline anytime soon.

“Right now the most important thing is if somebody calls they need to talk to someone,” he said. “That window can close.”

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