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Legislation pushes for funding to treat gambling addicts

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Problem gambling
Robert McGuigan holds a photograph of his son Jason, who was murdered in a triple homicide in Verona in 2003, possibly in a gambling dispute. Robert McGuigan is reflected in the glass, at left, on Nov. 6 in Madison.

At 13, Jason McGuigan's eyes gleamed with an unusual intensity as he played cards or Monopoly, his father said.

At 28, McGuigan was murdered, possibly over a gambling dispute.

Now his father is pushing for legislation that would secure $14.2 million a year in federal tax dollars for five years to treat problem gambling, raise awareness and conduct research.

"We used to sit in the backyard in the summer, or in the winter we'd be in the living room, and we'd play friendly games of cards and dice and what have you," Robert McGuigan said about raising his only child, "not knowing at that time that it could lead to addiction."

It's an addiction many Wisconsin residents struggle with - and one experts say is surprisingly hard to treat.

Gambling rampant

More than 70 percent of adults in the United States have gambled at least once in the past year, 15 percent at least once in the past week, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

According to the council, 3 percent, or 127,319 adults, in Wisconsin struggled with problem or pathological gambling as of 2006. For those ages 12 to 17, it was 6 percent of the population, or 19,325 people.

Keith Whyte, the council's executive director, said the way the federal government addresses gambling has to change and the proposed legislation is a crucial first step.

"Because without the authorization contained in the bill, all the federal health agencies, frankly, get the message that problem gambling is not a priority," said Whyte, who successfully lobbied the office of U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, to support the bill, HR 2906.

"Problem gambling has serious financial and emotional consequences for gamblers, their families, friends, employers and communities," said Baldwin, who signed on to the bill as a co-sponsor Nov. 4.

Rose Gruber, executive director for the Green Bay-based Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling, a nonprofit funded in part by the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee, said the bill is the first time there's been a real comprehensive package of legislation in Congress.

People with gambling problems have a fraction of the resources available to those with alcohol and drug problems, she said.

"We could make some real inroads into the compulsive gambling disorder," Gruber said. "Right now there are not resources or research or treatment. A lot of those things, especially here in Wisconsin, aren't even options for people with gambling problems."

Her group continues to see an increase in calls to its help line (1-800-GAMBLE-5). Last year, a record 12,946 people called. Through the end of August this year, there were 9,911 calls, and if they continue at that rate, this year will break last year's record, she said.

Tough-to-treat compulsion

Earl German, a Madison therapist who treats gamblers, said gambling is the most difficult addiction.

Most addicts - whether their problem is alcohol, drugs, sex or shopping - always believe they can repeat the same behavior and get a different outcome, he said. They think they can go into a bar and just have two or three beers, or go shopping and not buy something they don't need.

"Gamblers take that to a higher level. They literally believe in magic," German said. "They think it doesn't make any difference how much they've lost or how long they've lost - the next time they lay down that bet, their ship's going to come in."

Treating compulsive gamblers is tricky as well, because the gambler has to give up absolute control of every dime they've got, German said.

Heidi Levy, a social worker and substance abuse counselor who treats gambling addicts at Madison's Veterans Hospital, agreed gamblers are difficult to treat because they always think the next bet is going to be a winner.

It's not uncommon for her to see people with debts of as much as $100,000 because of gambling, and a significant number of gambling addicts consider suicide, she said.

‘A hidden addiction'

At first, McGuigan, who now travels the state speaking about gambling, refused to believe his son had a problem.

"Gambling is a hidden addiction," said McGuigan, 58, who lives on Madison's North Side. "It's not like alcohol, which you can smell on the breath, or drugs, where you can see the marks or you can see it in their eyes or you can smell it coming from the room."

In 2003, Jason McGuigan was shot to death in a Verona apartment along with two other men. Meng-Ju Wu was charged in the killings but committed suicide in jail while awaiting trial. According to court records, Jason McGuigan introduced Wu to offshore sports betting.

People think that in the worst-case scenario, gambling can lead to the loss of a home, a job, or that a person can squander their rent or Social Security check, McGuigan said.

"My son paid the ultimate price."

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