Enforcement Of Casino Voluntary Exclusion Program Challenging

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The state provides problem gamblers with a voluntary ban program to keep them out of casinos. But enforcement can be difficult if players are not recognized or do not use a casino reward card that can be screened for violators.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
The state provides problem gamblers with a voluntary ban program to keep them out of casinos. But enforcement can be difficult if players are not recognized or do not use a casino reward card that can be screened for violators.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

The opening of casinos in Ohio brought fears of an increase in compulsive gambling. So state law requires casinos to post problem gambling help lines in ads and in the casino. The law also includes list of problem gamblers who are banned from casinos. The list is voluntary and enforcement has holes.

The Hollywood Casino Columbus at 10:30 on a weekday morning is practically a ghost town. Most card tables are empty. Vacant slot machines ting and ding. A woman sits alone at a bank of colorfully animated slots. She just hit a winning combination because the machine begins to whirl with a sound like a mid-80s video game.

For people addicted to gambling, the mere thought of these sights and sounds can knock them off the wagon. If they go in and lose big, or even win big, recovery is back to square one.

But problem gamblers can legally keep themselves away. They can put themselves on a list that’s supposed to keep them from setting foot in a casino. Ohio’s Voluntary Exclusion Program works like this:

A gambler contacts the Ohio Casino Control Commission and give them their name, address and a picture. Casinos have OCCC agents on site who can register people.

The person agrees to stay out of the casino for a year, five years or for life.

Ohio Casino Control Commission director Matt Schuler said the program is effective.

“Many of them have indicated to us it’s been a lifeline. It’s been the one thing where they finally are at peace because they know they can’t enter a casino facility,” Schuler said. “Something that has that big of an impact on an individual, you have to say it’s a success.”

If they break the contract they face criminal trespassing charges, a misdemeanor. Of the 500 people on the list, about 25 have been caught inside a casino.

“They have been intercepted. A number of those have been charged with criminal trespassing and have had to forfeit their winnings to the state,” Schuler said.

The winnings, by the way, go toward state problem gambling programs.

When someone cashes out at a casino their name is checked against the exclusion list. If they’re on it, they’re busted. But here’s the enforcement predicament: How many have gone in, played, lost big and no one ever knew?

“It’s really impossible to know,” Hollywood Casino Columbus assistant manager Gary DeWitt said. “We certainly hope it doesn’t happen often.”

DeWitt said Hollywood Casino’s surveillance team each day reviews photos of people on the list in an effort to spot violators. Enforcement is easier if the person uses their player’s reward card because their information can be checked against the exclusion list.

“But if someone comes in and doesn’t use a card or something along those lines they may be a little difficult to identify,” he said.

Three years ago, Maryhaven began its problem gambling program. Last year, 350 people sought help. Maryhaven director Paul Coleman has seen an uptick in problem gambling since Columbus’ casino opened last fall. He said in many cases counselors suggest clients get on the exclusion list.

“It sort of gives a problem gambler a check and a balance on their inclination to go into casinos which generally have a very rapid return on the money bet. So it keeps that temptation off the table for them,” Coleman said.

Maryhaven patient Alicia has been on the voluntary exclusion list since June. She signed up for life. We’re only using Alicia’s first name for her privacy.

After multiple threats to leave because of her addiction, she said her husband finally walked out this summer.

“I gambled our money away,” Alicia admitted.

For Alicia, gambling was a way to cope with being forced to quit her job three years ago and rely on disability payments. She estimates she gambled away up to $20,000. Most of her time and money were spent at a neighborhood Internet café, although she went to the casino on a handful of occasions.

“It’s a shame that it took that, for my husband to leave me to say, ‘you know what? I gotta stop myself and go do this.’”

Getting on the exclusion list was as much about Alicia declaring her addiction as it was an aid to keep her out of the casino. But the exclusion list will not restrict her from Internet cafes which remain open for now. A new law could shut them down unless referendum is put to voters next year.

And there’s also no voluntary ban for bingo parlors.

That’s where Jayson fed his gambling addiction. Like Alicia, we’re only using his first name., He preferred the “pull and win tabs” at a bingo parlor near his home.

“When I won, it made me want to buy more. And when I lost it made me want to buy more,” Jayson said. “And that’s why it was like a double-edged sword because no matter what I did, won or lost, I wanted to buy more.”

Jayson sought help when he gambled away his rent money hasn’t played bingo since June. And he’s thinking of adding his name to the casino exclusion list to be safe. But Jayson wishes he could ban himself from bingo parlors.

“I think the bingo halls themselves, you know, who are supposedly, you know, representing a non-profit organization and are there to supposedly help somebody, should offer it themselves,” Jayson said.

State officials have not considered extending the voluntary exclusion program, but all of Ohio’s new racinos have their own exclusion lists. However, the racinos do not share their lists with other racinos or with casinos.

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