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Gamblers can remove temptation
1,330 have voluntarily banned themselves from Iowa casinos under state program

Rod Boshart

The Gazette

October 9, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

  DES MOINES — When Mike Harding could no longer control his gambling urges, he took matters into his own slot-clutching hands.

  He voluntarily banned himself from Iowa casinos forever.

  Harding, 45, of Altoona, is one of about 1,330 people who have signed up for the state’s self-exclusion program that allows anyone to voluntarily bar themselves from state-licensed race tracks and casinos. The lifetime ban also is available via the state lottery and at American Indian casinos in Iowa.

  Program participants fill out notarized self-exclusion forms at gambling facilities or through 10 gambling treatment centers around the state. If they are later discovered on casino premises, they can be charged with trespassing.

  If a participant wins at a casino, Iowa law requires that the casino not pay the person, but instead deposit the winnings in the Gambling Treatment Fund.

  ‘‘That’s really the hammer. If somebody comes in and they get some big prize or they win a jackpot over $1,200 that would make them go to the cashier’s cage and identify themselves, then they’re not allowed to keep that,’’ said Jack Ketterer, administrator for the state Racing and Gaming Commission.

  State officials said $182,041 in winnings confiscated at casinos from self-exclusion violators were deposited in the Gambler’s Treatment Fund in fiscal 2006. So far $17,183 in winnings have been forfeited since July 1. Forfeited prizes ranged from $8 to $16,105. Mary Neubauer of the Iowa Lottery said her agency has adopted a similar self-exclusion rule, which so far has been used by five ex-lottery players.

  ‘‘It works great. I know I can’t go to a casino in Iowa without getting arrested,’’ said Harding, who went from social to problem gambler after being forced onto disability about six years ago because of multiple surgeries on his knees and back. ‘‘I’m not willing to take that risk.’’

  While self-exclusion is one tool to help compulsive gamblers on the road to recovery, experts in the gambling treatment field say it must be coupled with other interventions to be effective. Those include group or individual counseling and guidance from a trained professional, said Nicole Peckumn of the state Department of Public Health, which houses the state’s gambling treatment program, 1-(800) BETSOFF hot line and Web site.

  Data from treatment centers around Iowa indicate about 10 percent of their total clients are enrolled in the self-exclusion program, Peckumn added.

  ‘‘The problem with self exclusion is that it’s often difficult to monitor and there are other gambling venues available to problem gamblers,’’ she said.

  Harding said he found that out for himself.

  Being unable to work, he said, left him depressed and with idle time. He began spending that time playing slot machines at Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino. He recalls sitting at the same machine for 22 hours ‘‘without ever getting off the chair.’’

  By 2003, Harding’s gambling problem had plunged him into debt, forcing him to file for bankruptcy. He entered treatment and signed up to be banned from Prairie Meadows.

  ‘‘Evidently that wasn’t my rock bottom because I started gambling again after that, so that’s when I excluded myself from all the casinos,’’ he said.

  Unable to play the slots at his hometown casino, Harding traveled to gambling facilities in Osceola and the Meskwaki Bingo Casino-Hotel near Tama to feed his compulsion.

  Two years later he was back in treatment. This time he took advantage of a new state law requiring all state-licensed casinos to offer the self-exclusion option and to share the information among themselves. The voluntary ban is enforced at the three race track-casinos and 13 riverboats under regulation of the state Racing and Gaming Commission.

  ‘‘It’s been a great tool for me in my recovery, but it’s not the only tool,’’ Harding said.

  For his part, Harding said, he does volunteer work, leads Gamblers’ Anonymous ‘‘step’’ meetings and is active in a recovery program through his church, where he also has reconnected with God. ‘‘My life has changed for so much better,’’ he said. Wes Ehrecke of the Iowa Gaming Association said member casinos share selfexclusion data weekly under tight confidentiality rules and rely on family members or friends of problem gamblers to help the facilities monitor compliance. Exclusion program participants also are removed from casino mailing or promotion lists. The Iowa ban also applies to casino properties owned by Harrahs and Isle of Capri companies in other states.