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Richmond Times-Dispatch

Monday, September 21, 1998

Author: Pamela Stallsmith ; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Donna Kelly lost up to $100,000 before she realized she was a gambling addict and now faces 24 counts of felony theft for floating checks to play video poker.   The 34-year-old married mother of two tried to kill herself by mixing Prozac and alcohol.   She entered a hospital to seek treatment and was sexually attacked by another patient.

Her family has stuck by her as she battles her gambling demons.”I realize the majority of people who gamble do so on a recreational basis, but I cannot,” she told the National Gambling Impact Study Commission during a recent meeting.But for Alice Brown, a 31-year-old mother of three, the eight casinos that have opened in Biloxi within the past six years have meant a chance to get off welfare, move out of subsidized housing and regain economic control of her life.

Brown earns $9.45 an hour as a VIP services clerk at the Isle of Capri casino in the Gulf Coast city.”Before casinos came, there were no jobs here,” she said after a lunch-time news conference sponsored by local officials to tout the economic benefits of the gambling industry. “There were no opportunities. Now there are.”The infusion of casinos has caused “the Mississippi Miracle,” local officials boast – an economic transformation that has catapulted the state out of its financial duress. About 30 casinos operate along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast, generating close to $2 billion a year in revenue for the state.

Tunica County, once described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson as “America’s Ethiopia” because of its distinction as the country’s poorest county, has seen its total revenue increase elevenfold since the first of its nine casinos arrived in 1992. Income has soared from $3.5 million then to $40.2 million last year.Yet the issue of compulsive gamblers and how to best treat them likely will emerge as one of the key issues in the commission’s report, due to Congress and the president in June.Less than 2 percent of the American population suffers from problem gambling. Estimates for the direct and indirect costs of treating compulsive gamblers ranges from $39 billion to $145 billion annually, according to a 1996 study.

The industry says it’s taken an aggressive approach by starting the National Center for Responsible Gaming to study the problem of compulsive and underage gambling.”I think this is one area where we have seen tremendous amount of consensus among commissioners,” panel Chairwoman Kay Coles James said. “You certainly can count on the issue being addressed in the report.”