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But Aren't Most People Recreational Gamblers?
Posted by Dan on October 5, 2012
The American Gaming Association (AGA), quoting from the 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission Final Report, claims:
“[T]he vast majority of Americans either gamble recreationally and experience no measurable side effects related to their gambling, or they choose not to gamble at all. Regrettably, some of them gamble in ways that harm themselves, their families, and their communities.”
The AGA also maintains that “only about 1 percent of the population [is] classified as pathological gamblers and another 2 percent experience problems gambling,” suggesting that 97% of the population either does not gamble or gambles “recreationally,” without harm or risk of harm.
There are several things wrong with the AGA claim that only 3% of the national population suffer from gambling addiction. But before addressing the misleading and false claims about percentages, it is important to understand what “recreational gambling” does, and does not mean.
“Recreational gambling” does not mean the same thing as “low-risk” or “moderate” drinking.
“Low-risk drinking” refers to those who do not have symptoms of alcohol dependence, and a) are not at significant risk of developing any future health or personal problems, and b) do not tend to experience harm at current levels. Extensive research has established guidelines based on the connection between levels of alcohol use and the known harms and risk that accompany increased consumption. One guideline in the U.S., for example, defines low-risk drinking as a) consuming no more than 4 drinks on any day for men, and no more than 3 drinks on any day for women; and, b) one must also consume no more than 14 drinks per week for men, and no more than 7 drinks per week for women. So you cannot be a “low-risk” or “moderate” drinker if you consume, say, six drinks a day or 24 drinks a week.
Not so with a “recreational gambler,” which merely means that a person does not report “problems,” meaning symptoms of gambling addiction. Since, as one group of researchers point out, the category “recreational gambler” “may include individuals who gamble frequently, intensively and/or lose a great deal of money,” these individuals still a) incur risk, and b) may incur harm. A person who gambles three or four times a week, even if they have not reported symptoms of gambling addiction, will likely suffer harm from financial loss and is at significant risk for future harm, including risk of Pathological Gambling.
To put it another way, “recreational gambling,” is like “recreational drug use” to a certain extent. It is possible to use cocaine, for example, without harm, risk of future harm, or symptoms of addiction; and it is also possible to gamble without harm, risk of future harm, or symptoms of gambling addiction. Yet no responsible person would suggest that using cocaine frequently – three to five times a week say – does no harm and carries no risk.
Likewise, it is irresponsible to suggest that gambling frequently does no harm and carries no risk. Research that does assess risk factors related to gambling participation, along with surveys of casino patrons, suggest that casino gambling, and other forms of predatory gambling, is far from harmless entertainment.
 Rodgers, Bryan; Caldwell, Tanya; Butterworth, Peter; Measuring Gambling Participation; Addiction; 2009, July, Vol. 104 Issue 7, p1065-1069.
 Defining “at-risk” drinking is still a debatable and tricky concept. (see, for example, Deborah A. Dawson, Defining Risk Drinking; in Alcohol Research and Health; Vol. 34, No. 2, 2011).
Nevertheless, research on alcohol use indicates the relationship between increased levels of alcohol consumption and levels of increased risk for a variety of harms, including accidents and liver disease, as well as the mental disorders Alcohol Dependence (also known as “alcoholism”) and Alcohol Abuse.
So for example, individuals incur significantly increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke at an average daily volume (ADV) of alcohol intake of 50 grams (Dawson, 2011, p. 145). The individual incurs an increased risk of stroke whether or not they show symptoms of alcohol dependence or other alcohol related disorder. We can say that raising levels above 50 grams ADV means raising risk of future harm as well as future health or personal problems, including developing problems associated with alcoholism and developing the disease of alcoholism itself. We can also identify probable current harms based on levels of consumption.
 What is low-risk drinking; in Rethinking Drinking, published by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at the National Institutes of Health
 Rodgers et al. 2009, p. 1066. The authors also point out, “The terms 'social' or 'recreational' gambling have been used, but these have a different connotation [from “moderate” or “low-risk” drinking] ... recreational gambling is defined by the absence of gambling problems and may include individuals who gamble frequently, intensively and/or lose a great deal of money. However, the deliberate exclusion of problem gambling from this group helps to foster assumptions that gambling in moderation has no ill-effects and may be beneficial, in spite of the lack of evidence on this topic.” (Ibid)
 In line with Rodgers et al. argument that we need more research on specific harms related to levels of gambling participation, there is at least some cause for concern about harms beyond those that may accompany financial loss. While research has barely begun to investigate the risk of harms other than gambling addiction, let alone identify causality, we do have evidence that the health of “recreational gamblers” differs significantly from non-gamblers in at least one sample of older adults. An article published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found:
“A total 28.74% of older adults were lifetime recreational gamblers and 0.85% were lifetime disordered gamblers. Compared with older adults without a history of regular gambling, recreational gamblers had significantly elevated rates of alcohol (30.1% versus 12.8%), nicotine (16.9% versus 8.0%), mood (12.6% versus 11.0%), anxiety (15.0% versus 11.6%), and personality disorders (11.3% versus 7.3%) and obesity (25.6% versus 20.8%), but were less likely to have past-year diagnoses of arteriosclerosis (4.7% versus 6.0%) or cirrhosis (0.2% versus 0.4%). Disordered gamblers were significantly more likely than older adults without a history of regular gambling to have alcohol (53.2% versus 12.8%), nicotine (43.2% versus 8.0%), drug (4.6% versus 0.7%), mood (39.5% versus 11.0%), anxiety (34.5% versus 11.6%), and personality (43.0% versus 7.3%) disorders, and to have past-year diagnoses of arthritis (60.2% versus 44.3%) or angina (22.7% versus 8.8%). These results remained significant even after controlling for demographic, psychiatric, and behavioral risk factors.” (Abstract; Pietrzak RH, Morasco BJ, Blanco C, Grant BF, Petry NM; Gambling level and psychiatric and medical disorders in older adults: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions; in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2007 Apr;15(4):301-13. Epub 2006 Nov 9).
 Scott Edwards and George F. Koob of the Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders distinguish between “substance dependence” and “recreational drug use” this way:
“Drug addiction (also known as ‘substance dependence’ according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] ) is a chronic, relapsing disorder that has been characterized by a compulsion to seek and take drugs, loss of control over drug intake; and an emergence of a negative emotional state (e.g., dysphoria, anxiety and irritability) that defines a motivational withdrawal syndrome when access to the drug is prevented . The occasional, limited, recreational use of a drug is clinically distinct from escalated drug use, loss of control over drug intake and the emergence of compulsive drug-seeking behavior that characterize addiction.” (p. 393, Neurobiology of dysregulated motivational systems in drug addiction in Future Neurology; 2010 May 1; 5(3): 393–401).
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