Steve Chapman

Online gambling is illegal in the United States. But in the countries where it's allowed, most people take a pass. "People discover it isn't that much fun to gamble alone," he notes, except for those with social problems. "The extent of Internet gambling for most is astoundingly moderate."

Another surprise for Shaffer was that in most cases, problem gambling is not "a relentless progressive disorder." If you smoke a few cigarettes, you'll probably soon be smoking every day. If you shoot heroin a couple of times, pretty soon you won't be able to live without it. But for the vast majority of those who gamble, control comes easy.

"It's a problem people react to," Shaffer reports. In fact, he says, "Problem gamblers are more likely to get better than worse."

Some problem gamblers, of course, do get worse, with harmful and even disastrous consequences for themselves and those around them. But Shaffer suggests that excessive gambling is not a highly contagious malady that can infect anyone who enters a casino. It's usually a symptom of some underlying disorder.

"Of people in the U.S. with gambling problems, about 75 percent had a mental health problem first and a gambling problem second," he notes. That, it stands to reason, makes efforts to outlaw gambling a pointless enterprise. He says that "some problem gamblers would have difficulties with gambling or something else even if there were no legal gambling available."

In any case, the epidemic of pathological gambling is hugely exaggerated. Studies indicate, according to Shaffer, that about 5 percent of Americans will ever have a gambling problem. Compare that with about 8.5 percent who suffer from alcohol problems annually and 25 percent who smoke cigarettes.

Allowing more casinos and other gambling opportunities is not likely to produce the great economic benefits often promised. But as a way of accommodating consumer preferences without serious social side effects, it's a pretty safe bet.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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