American Indian governments, operators of the largest segment of the country’s legal gambling industry, are stepping up efforts to confront problem and compulsive gambling, an addiction that targets indigenous Americans.
Although tribes have worked to combat problem and compulsive gambling since before enactment of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, efforts have intensified over the years with emergency hotlines and treatment, education and prevention programs, many in partnership with state chapters of the nonprofit National Center on Problem Gambling (NCPG).
Tribes have also worked with NCPG chapters on self-exclusion programs and employee training to detect and intervene when casino employees spot signs of problem gambling among their customers.
“I would say that tribes have come a long way,” says Robert Jacobson, executive director of the California Council on Problem Gambling. “They made some moderate leaps from 2001 to around 2011. From 2011 they’ve made some much greater leaps.
“Many of the tribes have exhibited an ongoing commitment to continue to go even further,” Jacobson says. “There’s still more we can do.”
“The larger, sophisticated tribal casino operations are doing some pretty good stuff with problem gambling,” says Keith Whyte, executive director of NCPG’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. “But there are a lot of tribes doing little, if anything. It’s a real dilemma. We want to celebrate the ones that are doing well. But at the same time you’ve got to push the folks that aren’t.”
Whyte and others also credit state tribal gambling associations with advancing the need to deal with problem and compulsive, or pathological, gambling, particularly in those jurisdictions with large Indian casino industries such as California, Oklahoma, Washington, New Mexico, Florida and elsewhere.
In Oklahoma, where 32 tribes operate gambling facilities ranging from travel plazas to casino resorts, tribes have recently rebranded their responsible gambling efforts with the slogan “Smart Play, OK” on billboards, pamphlets and electronic signage.
Tribes working through the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association (OIGA) also have upgraded their employee training program and instituted a cloud-based computer system for the statewide self-exclusion program.
“I don’t know of any tribes across the country that cooperate as much as we do in Oklahoma,” says Wiley Harwell, director of the Oklahoma Council on Program Gambling. Of the 132 tribal operations in the state, 90 of them are linked to the self-exclusion program.
“It’s the smaller tribes, particularly in the northeast sector of the state, that don’t participate,” Harwell says. “As far as the large tribes, they all participate, so that’s very helpful. We have the large areas covered.”
“It was a commitment by the tribes,” Whyte says of the self-exclusion program in the Sooner State. “It was not something the state government required. It was something the tribes had to invest money in. They had to agree among themselves that they were going to use it.
“It was an OIGA and Oklahoma Council project,” Whyte says. “They got it done.”
The Responsible Gaming Association of New Mexico, which consists of 11 of the state’s 14 tribes, has a $300,000 contract with the Center for Responsible Gaming to update a 2005 prevalence study to focus on younger gamblers.
“We want to spearhead our prevention efforts on youths,” says Rebecca Beardsley, president of the association, particularly with the likelihood of legalized online gambling and sports wagering.
“Kids are having a lot of face time with online gaming. Computer games are starting to look like casino games. The casino industry is starting to create games that look like computer games. We want to see if that is increasing the risks.
“We have a pretty good suspicion it is,” Beardsley says. “We want some clinical data that says how much and just what can we possibly do about it.”
“In 1998 when I started here, we were just beginning to understand what problem gambling was,” says Maureen Greeley, executive director of the Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling in Washington state, an affiliate of the NCPG. “Today there is a much greater awareness. But there are still a lot of questions.
“I think the beautiful thing is problem gambling is being recognized as an issue that needs to be dealt with. The larger tribes in particular are doing a great job of that.”
A Genuine Concern
Native communities have long been plagued with poverty and the chronic disease risk factors that often lead to addiction. The risk is particularly acute for residents of remote, economically deprived reservations that serve as home to more than 30 percent of indigenous Americans.
While the research is limited, studies have shown the rate of problem gambling among Native Americans to be two to 16 times higher than non-Indians. Surveys have shown roughly 1-2 percent of the general population suffers from pathological gambling.
A recent survey of Native military veterans also found 10 percent met the criteria for pathological gambling, nearly six times the rate for the general population.
Introducing casino gambling to Indian Country can be problematic for communities plagued by alcohol and substance abuse, depression and other risk factors for problem and compulsive gambling.
Yet tribes today operate roughly 508 gambling outlets in 29 states, facilities ranging from traffic plazas to gambling resorts, according to the American Gaming Association and National Indian Gaming Commission. The operations generated $32.4 billion in 2017, according to NIGC.
Tribal leaders are challenged with balancing the benefits of gambling revenues, which provide needed government services to tribal citizens, with the risks of compounding addiction and other behavioral problems in their communities.
It stands to reason that many of the 250 casino tribes in the lower 48 states would take a lead role in programs to confront problem and compulsive gambling.
Unlike alcohol, drug abuse and other addictions, there are no federal agencies assigned to fund and direct programs for problem gambling.
The void has left it up to tribal and state governments, the industry and nonprofits such as NCPG and its affiliates to combat gambling addiction in the U.S.
Many programs are funded through provisions of tribal-state regulatory agreements, or compacts, required under IGRA in the 29 states with Indian casinos. Many tribes exceed required contributions with additional donations.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida, owner of Hard Rock International, pays $1.5 million a year to the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling. The state Department of Mental Health has no problem gambling program.
The 61 California tribes in 2016 paid the state Office of Problem Gaming (OPG) nearly $8.6 million, far more than the state lottery ($130,000) and card rooms ($153,000). The OPG contracts with the nonprofit state council for helpline, treatment and employee training services.
Other programs are funded by state agencies and the taxation of commercial casinos, parimutuel racetracks, card rooms and lotteries.
Public funding of problem gambling services in some 40 states with legal gambling increased 20 percent from 2013 to 2016, according to NCPG, but remained at a paltry $73 million or an average of 37 cents per capita.
The Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, did not consent to an interview. But Jennifer Reeder, public affairs specialist for IHS, said in an email that the agency “recognizes gambling addiction to be a significant need and provides treatment through mental health and addiction providers.
“Counseling for gambling is a non-billable service, so it would be unusual to find a counselor with this sole focus in an IHS, tribal and urban Indian or any other mental health/substance use treatment facility,” she said.
IHS counselors are schooled in problem gambling by NCPG chapters in California, New Mexico and elsewhere.
Most IHS funding is channeled to reservation behavioral mental health programs, despite the fact nearly 70 percent of indigenous Americans live off the reservation. Meanwhile, the pipeline of professionals going into addiction counseling is small, particularly in a reservation community.
The indigenous problem gambler may prefer cultural components as part of the treatment, whether it’s a sweat lodge, kiva, talking circle or some other traditional activity.
“Do I want to go somewhere and be treated by people who know nothing about natives?” asks David Patterson Silver Wolf, associate professor at the Washington University Institute for Public Health in St. Louis, Missouri. “When you’re able to deal with things within your own community, with your own way of thinking, your own way of doing things and your own support system, you have better success, right?”
“What about sweat lodges? What about talking circles? What about the traditional practices that have proven to be very effective?” Greeley asks.
New Mexico tribal officials met before gambling was legalized in the state to discuss addiction.
“Many of the tribal leaders realized that problem gambling could become an issue in their communities,” Beardsley says. “So they sat down and had a meeting and said, ‘How are we going address it on a statewide basis?’
“I’m really proud that the industry is taking up this effort. We take it very seriously. It’s not just a liability because we’re required to do it,” she says, with the tribal-state compact earmarking 0.13 percent of casino revenues to addiction programs.
“We never want to impact somebody’s livelihood or their health or safety. Suicide rates among problem gamblers are very high,” Beardsley says. “We never want to contribute to that.”
“When you see how it is affecting your own community, you obviously want to do something,” Greeley says of Washington tribes and problem gambling. “You want to make a difference. That came first.”
“We’ve had a positive relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida close to 30 years, as long as they’ve had gaming in the state of Florida,” says Jennifer Kruse, executive of the Florida council. “They have pioneered the responsible gaming program for the state of Florida.
“They have grown and evolved as the industry has grown and evolved,” Kruse says of the Seminole’s seven gambling operations. “They continue to strengthen an already good responsible gaming program.”
Responsible Gambling Is Good Business
Coming to grips with gambling addiction was difficult as tribes and commercial casino industries spread throughout the United States in the late 1980s and ’90s. Anti-gambling advocates used gambling addiction as an argument in opposing the development of casinos.
“Very often, the problem gambling issue becomes more about politics than people,” says a gambling industry consultant who requested anonymity, “way too often.”
But the political threat problem gambling posed to the casino industry gradually dissipated as the Indian casino market matured, public acceptance of casinos grew and gambling in America became normalized.
“Almost every state that’s going to have tribal gaming has it,” Whyte says. “Expansion issues are off the table. People are accustomed to gambling. They’re used to it. It’s been normalized.
“So maybe the tribes feel a little freer. Rather than an existential threat to the industry, problem gambling is a health issue to be addressed.”
The commercial and tribal casino industry has also come to regard responsible gambling programs as an essential part of corporate citizenship.
“Responsible gambling is just good business,” says Connie Jones, director of responsible gaming for the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers. “It’s a consumer protection issue, and it’s being framed much more as a consumer protection issue, globally. And for the manufacturer that becomes a product safety issue.”
“I think the more established and confident tribal casinos have become, having a responsible gaming program has simply become an extension of their business,” Harwell says.
“I do think at the beginning there was a sense that, ‘We don’t want to run off business. We want to be customer-friendly.’
“It’s just good business practice to get these people the help they need,” Harwell says. “We don’t need their business.”
The notion that an addicted gambler can be a casino’s most profitable customer has gone by the boards. While he or she may over a short period of time be a prolific gambler, they are often disruptive to other guests and problematic to employees.
“Tribal casinos are stable businesses run by well-educated people,” Jacobson says. “The tribes themselves have gained a lot of experience. The majority of them have learned as an industry that problem gambling goes beyond a social obligation. It’s not prosperous for a property, long-term, to encourage it.
“If you compare somebody who comes into the property twice a month, spends an amount they can comfortably afford and continues that relationship for 20, 30, 40 years as opposed to somebody who loses everything they have over a course of 13 months and never comes back, we’ll make more money off the person we built that lifelong relationship with.”
“Problem gamblers aren’t the people you want on your floor,” Kruse says of the Seminole casinos. “They aren’t good for business.”
But many tribal casinos are small, marginal operations in rural, if not remote, locations. They often lack the operational skills to deal with gambling addiction in their communities.
“The smaller the tribe, the less they do when it comes to problem gambling,” Harwell says.
Jacobson says that’s not always the case in California.
“The tribes with larger revenue streams are likely to contribute more financially,” he says. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t some smaller tribes that don’t make a commitment.”
“I can’t say where the needle is for all the tribes. It’s across the board,” Greeley says of Washington tribes. “There are still some who say, ‘No, no, no. That’s our best customer. We don’t want to hurt that relationship.’
“But it’s absolutely, without a doubt, good customer service, understanding that the person with a problem is not going to be your best customer, long-term,” she says.
“Nobody wants a person to be in a bad place. So what’s our responsibility—not only our responsibility to the individual, but our responsibility as a good corporate citizen?
“Many tribes are coming to that awareness,” Greeley says.
Taking The Extra Step
It is not unusual for the San Manual Band of Mission Indians to pull a casino employee off the floor for two hours so they can walk somebody in crisis into a private office, hand them a telephone and sit with them while they call the problem gambling help line.
“They’re the only casino I know that goes to that extent,” a gambling addiction counselor says of the San Manuel Mission Indians of San Bernardino County, California.
California tribes under their tribal-state compacts are required to direct a percentage of their casino revenues to the state Office of Problem Gambling. A handful of tribes—San Manuel, Barona Band of Mission Indians, United Auburn Indian Community and others—contribute additional funds to the state council.
Jacob Coin, San Manuel’s executive director of public affairs, developed a concern about problem gambling while serving as executive director for the Arizona and later California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA).
“The concern I and other people had was whether or not bringing gaming to the reservation would create another source of addiction too close to home,” he says. “I was glad to hear others in the industry say they were in it for the entertainment and didn’t want to see people lose their homes, their cars, their families. I was curious what sort of programs they were going to institute to keep people from falling victim to this problem.”
Coin while with CNIGA worked with then-Senator John Burton in establishing the Office of Problem Gambling with $3 million of tribal funds. Coin later left the association for San Manuel.
“San Manuel came to be very active, very quickly,” he said, lending its support and charitable giving to the NCPG at the state and national level. For 13 consecutive years as many as 90 percent of its casino workers were certified as being trained in responsible gambling programs.
“San Manuel just makes a tremendous effort,” Jacobson says.
The tribe’s philosophy falls in line with its charitable giving, which centers on local hospitals and educational facilities and includes a recent $25 million contribution to its long-term partner, Loma Linda University Medical Center. The tribe also has a partnership with the Red Cross.
“The tribe has a real commitment to elevating the quality of life,” Coin says. “You’re dealing with human frailties. That’s got to be the driving force. Whether it’s a tribal citizen or a non-tribal citizen, you have the same level of responsibility and obligation to provide assistance where it is needed.
“The tribe looks at this as more than a business. There’s a heavy investment in responsible gambling training,” Coin says. “Ninety percent of our casino employees are trained in courses offered by the California Council.”
“They’re not doing it for glory,” Whyte says of San Manuel. “They’re not doing it because they want good PR. They’re doing it because they want to.
“That for me is the biggest thing that distinguishes tribal responsible gambling efforts from commercial casinos. In the vast majority of the cases, tribes aren’t being compelled by regulations. It’s not necessarily in their compacts.
“They’re doing it solely because they think it’s the right thing to do.”