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Md., Anne Arundel look to curb underage gambling

A lottery ticket in a Christmas stocking. A fantasy football league. Online poker.

You don’t have to be over 21 and sitting at a poker table or slot machine to gamble.

State gambling regulators, compulsive gambling experts and public health officials are working to prevent the spread of gambling problems among teens and young adults, especially those with a casino in their backyard.

The Anne Arundel County Department of Health will host a daylong Youth Problem Gambling Prevention Training session on Oct. 28, taught by the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

Joanna Franklin, program director for the center, said 80 percent of American kids age 10 to 17 gamble for money or valuables.

Based on studies conducted in other states, she estimated 6.8 to 11 percent of Maryland teens — the ones who may sneak a check out of the back of mom’s checkbook to fund their addiction – have a gambling problem.

Not all kids who bet have a gambling addiction, Franklin said. But her rough estimate is that the percentage is twice that of Maryland adults.

Alcohol or drug prevention or treatment programs abound, but, “we have zero prevention programs for gambling,” Franklin said.

Many times, an addiction starts at home. Older siblings might pique a young person’s interest, or grandma might stick a lottery ticket in a birthday card, Franklin said.

The problem is also societal. Roughly 30 percent of vendors will sell lottery tickets to minors, Franklin said.

“It’s almost an exact parallel to smoking,” she said.

About 30 people under 21 were caught in the state’s casinos last year, according to the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency. Maryland Live in Hanover and other casinos could be fined tens of thousands of dollars for underage gamblers who have been caught.

Maryland State Lottery & Gaming Control Agency Director Stephen Martino said there is no “epidemic” of youth gambling in Maryland. The report even counted babies brought in with their parents, Martino said.

“But it is something we believe is important to the state to preserve the integrity of the facilities,” he said.

As of now, underage gamblers who sneak into casinos are not punished by the state, but officials at Maryland Live said such punishments could be a deterrent. Four of the 30 underage gamblers caught were at the casino next to Arundel Mills mall.

“It would help curtail the instances if there were some legal ramifications for those individuals that violate the law,” said Carmen Gonzales, a spokesman for the casino, in an email.

For now, Gonzales said the casino has made improvements to the entrance procedures and will make more as necessary as it works toward “zero tolerance.” Two or three security guards are at the two entrances of Maryland Live and check the IDs of anyone they suspect is under 21.

Martino said his agency is working with nonprofit groups like the Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling to help state legislators in the House and Senate craft legislation creating a financial penalty for underage gamblers.

Dr. Christopher Welsh, the center’s medical director, said a bill proposed in the last General Assembly session failed. He is optimistic that something similar will be proposed in the next session.

“No other state is trying to do something like we’re talking about,” Welsh said.

Welsh said gambling regulators want to impose a fine on the teen violator, but also require a class, similar to one required after a drunken-driving arrest. Repeat offenders would be assessed for a gambling addiction, Welsh said.

But punishment doesn’t get rid of an addiction, Franklin said. Problem gamblers, like all addicts, need treatment.

The October training day will use a curriculum called Smart Choices. It’s not a “scared-straight” program, Franklin said.

“Our goal is not to get all kids to swear, ‘I’ll never gamble,’” she said. “We tried prohibition; it didn’t work.”

Franklin said that instead of bringing in gamblers who have hit rock bottom, the program focuses on reducing risky decision-making, delaying the starting age of gambling, and bolstering coping skills and the ability to refuse opportunities to gamble.

It also teaches young people that gambling is mostly about luck, not skill.

“These days, add to that just watching ESPN, because they show so many different poker shows,” Franklin said. “Before you know it, they all think they’re experts.”

Franklin said she was worried about the rise in Internet gambling.

“It’s going to be so increasingly convenient and anonymous,” she said. “It’s going to be even harder to find them and get them help.”

This fall, Franklin said the center will bring the gambling curriculum to schools across Maryland.

About 20 people attended a first session of the class in May, and there was demand for a second, Health Department spokeswoman Elin Jones said.

So far only a handful of school counselors, social workers and other professionals have registered, but Jones said she expects about the same number of participants.

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