Casinos are relatively new to Maine, but state officials are drawing attention to an issue that often goes hand-in-hand with expansion of gaming opportunities: problem gambling.

The state’s Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, in cooperation with other state agencies and the casinos, plans to host a conference Thursday in Waterville to increase awareness of the issue and encourage responsible wagering. Problem gambling can include an addiction, or compulsion to gamble.

“Most people can gamble for fun and do it in a responsible way,” said Christine Theriault, the prevention manager at SAMHS.

But for a small group — estimated nationally at 2 to 3 percent of gamblers — it progresses to the point of dipping into savings and money for other needs, and it becomes an addiction that “just comes to a point where it consumes their lives.”

Theriault said it would be wrong to lay blame for such problems solely on the casinos, noting that there are many other forms of gambling that predate the casinos by decades, including state-run lotteries and legal bingo games.

She said the state’s two casinos — Hollywood Casino in Bangor and Oxford Casino in Oxford — are supportive of the effort to prevent problem gambling. Under the law governing the casinos, some of the money the operations pay in taxes goes to SAMHS to help pay for prevention and treatment of problem gambling.

For the last two years, $50,000 has gone into that effort each year, and the amount is doubling this year with the Oxford Casino now open, Theriault said.

However, that pales in comparison to some other states’ requirements. In Massachusetts, where three full-service casinos are expected to open in the next two years, the operators will have to pay $5 million into a trust fund to pay for anti-addiction efforts, along with 5 percent of the casinos’ tax revenue — for a total estimated at $20 million a year.

Theriault said Maine has been ramping up its efforts, even with much more limited funding. She said the state has prepared brochures to help people identify friends or family members with gambling problems. The brochures are available at the casinos and by calling the statewide 211 system.

Also, a new Safe Bet program is kicking off with slogans printed on cocktail napkins distributed in the casinos:

“Know Your Limit and Stay Within it,” “Be Smart Before you Start” and “Have Fun. Stop When You’re Done.”

She said the state also is creating a database of providers who treat gambling addiction.

Meanwhile, Theriault said the state’s nonprofit Maine Council on Problem Gambling is just gearing up again after being nonfunctioning for several years.

Scott Gagnon, the president of the council’s interim board, said board resignations and funding problems led to the board essentially going out of business. Now officials are working to get it running again to help make more people aware that addictive gambling is a problem.

Theriault said that in some people, problem gambling is essentially a form of substance abuse, since the “high” that comes from winning causes the brain to produce a substance that creates pleasure — and is addictive. She said some people actually go through physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop gambling.

Theriault said there are no figures on how many problem gamblers are in Maine and whether the problem is growing. But Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said casinos and other forms of legitimate gambling, such as state-run lottery programs, tend to remove any stigma around gambling.

That has led to a sharp increase in the number of people who gamble, Whyte said. In the 1970s, only about 60 percent of Americans said they had ever gambled; in more recent surveys, that number has risen to about 85 percent, he said.

However, Whyte said casinos will support efforts to deal with problem gambling. For those with a long-term view, that’s good business, he said, because a sharp rise in problem gambling, and related issues such as increased crime, could lead states to limit any extension of gambling or even scale back what’s allowed.

Lesa Densmore, scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the conference next week, said the expansion of gambling opportunities fed her addiction, which began in high school in Gardiner with bingo games.

It continued at the University of Maine, which she attended on an athletic scholarship, and really grew in her mid-20s, when she started going to casinos and playing video poker, which she said is considered “video crack” for gambling addicts.

Densmore, who lives in New York, speaks about gambling addiction and offers treatment programs. She said Thursday that she took steps to deal with the problem on her own, including signing up for “self-exclusion” programs to bar herself from casinos, a program also available at Maine’s two casinos.

However, she soon found herself driving farther to casinos where she wasn’t barred, she said, until she checked herself into a residential treatment program that also addressed underlying emotional problems behind her addiction.

Densmore said she applauds Maine for holding a conference on problem gambling relatively early after allowing casinos to open, but said a rise in gambling addiction is almost certain to accompany an increase in gambling opportunities.

“You’re going to find more and more problems happen in the state of Maine,” she said. “It’s inevitable.”

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