New Jersey's foray into Internet gambling is being counted on to reinvigorate the Atlantic City casino industry, but some fear that it may also come with an ominous side effect - a new generation of gambling addicts.
Experts in the field of compulsive gambling questioned whether safeguards built into the Internet gambling law will be enough to prevent children and teenagers from playing online and getting hooked.
"Minors have a record of being able to outwit whatever system is set up. They are technology savvy," said Donald Weinbaum, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
Speaking at a state conference on compulsive gambling in West Windsor, Mercer County, on Friday, Weinbaum said there are already an estimated 350,000 problem gamblers in New Jersey. He is worried the figure will go higher once Internet gambling begins.
Lisa Spengler, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, the agency that oversees Internet gambling, said regulators are hard at work adding even more safeguards to the system to prevent children and compulsive gamblers from playing online.
"We have a strong commitment to ensure that underage gamblers and problem gamblers are prevented from gambling," Spengler said. "We are very committed to the regulatory framework."
Atlantic City's casinos and their Internet partners are preparing to launch their gambling websites as soon as the Division of Gaming Enforcement gives the final go-ahead. The statutory deadline is Nov. 26, but the division has the power to push back the start-up date if more time is needed.
Internet wagering will immediately generate about $400 million in annual revenue for the Atlantic City casinos, according to estimates by Spectrum Gaming Group, a Linwood-based casino consulting firm. The new source of revenue is expected to help the casinos recover from a seven-year decline in slot and table games winnings from their brick-and-mortar operations.
Internet gambling will allow players to bet on casino-style slot machines and table games using their home computers, smartphones and other electronic devices. They will now have the choice of staying home to gamble instead of physically going to a casino.
"One big risk is that people will be gambling in the privacy of their home, free of control," Weinbaum said. "They can gamble in their pajamas, or while drunk or on drugs. They can gamble nonstop."
Another speaker at Friday's conference warned that college students and young adults seem particularly vulnerable to becoming compulsive gamblers because they are already using the Internet for sports betting, fantasy sports leagues and poker websites.
"Today's college students live in a generation that is much more accepting of gambling," said Thomas Broffman, a social work professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and a researcher of gambling disorders.
Jody Bechtold, a nationally recognized expert on gambling and substance addiction, warned that baby boomers could be a high-risk group for compulsive gambling as they enter retirement and have more leisure time to bet online.
Bechtold, of Pittsburgh, said the current generation of senior citizens might not be of serious concern for the potential pitfalls of Internet gambling. She noted that seniors, as a group, prefer to gamble at the land-based casinos instead of using the Internet.
At this point, Bechtold thinks it is simply too early to tell whether Internet gambling will lead to more compulsive gambling. She urged New Jersey officials to immediately launch a study for more information.
"I would suggest doing it ASAP, so you at least have a baseline to measure something," she said.
Broffman believes Internet gambling will definitely create more compulsive gamblers in New Jersey. He said the Internet adds a potentially combustible component to the gambling world.
"If you have matches, oxygen and dynamite, would you be surprised if something blew up?" he said.
Broffman, Bechtold and Weinbaum all expressed hope that New Jersey's regulations will be strong enough to mitigate any problems.
"We believe there are safeguards built into the rule-making process to support responsible gaming," Weinbaum said. "But we've had concerns that Internet gaming completely changes the nature and availability of gambling across the state."
Spengler, the division spokeswoman, said the agency is developing the final Internet regulations, including even stricter controls to prevent compulsive gamblers or children from playing online.
One key safeguard is automatically extending New Jersey's list of "self-excluded" gamblers to the casino websites, Spengler noted. Currently, compulsive gamblers may voluntarily bar themselves from casinos by signing up for an exclusion list.
The division has worked with other state agencies and the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, among other groups, to incorporate safety measures in the regulations, Spengler said.
For instance, pass codes and other security features will be set up to prevent children from accessing their parents' or another adult's online gambling accounts.
Players will be able to set daily betting limits on their Web accounts as a way of curtailing their gambling. They will also be told about New Jersey's 1-800-GAMBLER hotline for compulsive gambling.
Under the Internet gambling law, each casino offering online wagering will pay a $250,000 annual fee to help fund prevention, education and treatment programs offered by the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, Weinbaum said.
The law also calls for an annual study of online betting's impact on compulsive gambling, according to Weinbaum.
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