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Family believes gambling led to suicide

When Bobby Hafemann died, his mother wrote an obituary listing his cause of death as suicide, thanks to the Oregon Lottery, recalls his sister, Ronda Hatefi.

Newspapers refused to run the obit as written, but Hatefi's family remains convinced that Hafemann shot himself in 1996 after becoming ashamed and despondent over mounting debt from an addiction to state-run video poker machines.

It's horrible to know a machine could take over his mind so completely, said Hatefi, a Eugene resident who founded Oregonians for Gambling Awareness. Over time, the gambling just became bigger than anything he could deal with.

Of the 1,504 gamblers who entered Oregon's problem-gambling treatment programs in 2003, 23 percent reported having suicidal thoughts in the months before entering therapy, state data shows. Twenty-seven percent said their gambling cost them a marriage or significant relationship; 24 percent committed crimes to finance their habit; and 15 percent said they had job problems as a result of gambling.

— Fortunately, the state's free treatment programs for its pathological and problem gamblers have proven to be successful in combating the onslaught of negative effects on the victims of an out-of-control gambling habit.

Oregon has a fairly comprehensive system ' one of the most developed in the nation, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. They've certainly set a good benchmark. We would encourage other states to look at that model.

But even though Oregon's gambling-treatment services ' funded with lottery dollars ' are highly touted and effective, some contend it makes no sense for a public entity to offer games of chance to its residents in the first place.

Gambling is not in the business of making winners, says Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. People have to lose money for it to work.

And when they do, experts say, we all pay the consequences.

Earl Grinols, a Baylor University professor who served as a senior economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan, has done a significant amount of research on the topic and believes there is no instance where the overall benefits of gambling outweigh the social and financial costs.

Grinols, author of Gambling in America: Costs and Benefits, studied the rates of crime, lost productivity, bankruptcy, family problems, social service costs and illness among gamblers and arrived at one conclusion: Even using conservative estimates, the costs of gambling outweigh the benefits by more than a — to — margin.

It is not wise to turn to gambling to raise tax revenue, Grinols said. It is a poor public-policy choice, and your state is better off not offering it.

According to Grinols' research, a single pathological gambler costs society about &

36;11,000, while a problem gambler costs about &

36;3,000.

If those numbers hold true for Oregon, the social-economic costs of gambling total about &

36;361 million, according to data provided by psychologist Jeff Marotta, who heads the state's problem-gambling service programs. A recent survey found that about 36,000 adult Oregonians are problem gamblers, with another 23,000 classified as pathological gamblers, according to data provided by Marotta.

Problem gambling is defined as behavior that causes a major disruption in any area of life; pathological gambling is persistent and recurrent maladaptive gambling behavior that disrupts personal, family or vocational pursuits, according to Marotta's research.

The combined gambling-related debt of people receiving state-funded treatment in Oregon in 2003 exceeded &

36;29.5 million.

Most gamblers don't end up with a problem, Marotta said. But what we've found is that almost anyone can develop a gambling problem, depending on the circumstances.

Marotta says the number of problem gamblers in Oregon will rise if video slot machines are introduced next year. The state Lottery Commission voted earlier this month to move forward with a plan to get video slots installed in bars and taverns by July 1, after getting the OK from Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Oregon is already one of just five states to offer video poker. About 70 percent of Oregonians treated for gambling problems report video poker as their game of choice, and it is by far the biggest moneymaker for the Lottery.

And while experts say it doesn't take long for a video poker habit to develop, video slots are even more addictive. That's because slots are faster-paced than other forms of gambling, easier to learn and are fashioned to include bright colors and flashing lights that help players become psychologically detached from reality and engrossed in a fantasy world, according to research reviewed by Marotta in an analysis of video slots presented to the Oregon Lottery in October.

Kulongoski, once an opponent of gambling as a revenue-generating strategy for the state, is hoping the expansion of gambling will generate an additional &

36;120 million during the 2005-07 budget cycle, most of which will pay for state police troopers.

During the 2003-05 biennium, the Lottery accounted for about 7 percent (&

36;779.8 million) of the state budget.

He has been very candid in saying that this was not his first choice (for raising state revenue), said Kulongoski spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor. The bottom line is that it became a question of having an adequate stream of funding for state police.

At the end, he felt the negative impacts from increasing gambling were outweighed by public-safety concerns, she said.

Anti-gambling advocate Grey says he believes Oregon has slowly but surely become a pathological-gambling state. In 2003, there were 45 gambling-expansion proposals in 29 states. Oregon was one of only three that passed an expansion plan, when legislation made way for a 20 percent increase in the number of Lottery-operated video poker machines.

(Oregon's) state government is addicted to the revenue, Grey said. Any (gambling game) that comes along, you've done it. I don't believe the people of Oregon, when they voted to bring in a lottery, had any idea of the extent of gambling in your state in 2004.

Like Grey, Hatefi has met with Kulongoski to discuss the dangers of gambling, and said he assured her in the past that he would not expand it in Oregon because of the risks.

It's so frustrating to me, Hatefi said. He knew ... how dangerous gambling is, and now he's doing an about-face. I just think it's so wrong for the state to be preying on its own people for survival.

In the end, some believe states like Oregon will only succeed in creating addicts, and eventually find itself a loser in the gambling business.

The more people there are who gamble to acquire money, the poorer society is, Grinols said. If everyone gambled to acquire his money, we would all starve.

Reach reporter Jack Moran at 776-4459, or e-mail