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Let's Not Gamble With Students' Lives

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

October 3, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, 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 Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

The Press-Citizen has been promoting the Riverside Casino with special supplements and page one stories.

Because the paper prides itself on localism and promotes new businesses, and because Riverside has one of the newest and biggest casinos, the promotional overkill wasn't surprising.

As someone commented on my blog,, "Look at ... papers in other casino communities. ... Casinos make huge ad buys and the local media give them nothing but favorable press. Our state, our municipalities, our media and our neighbors are addicted to gambling."

I haven't seen those "huge ad buys" in the Press-Citizen. But with Nevada gambling interests lobbying our legislators, and Iowans' seeming enthusiasm for slowly dropping their life savings into slot machines, he's right about the addiction.

It was because of the many costs of that addiction to Eastern Iowans -- from bankruptcies to crime and domestic violence -- that I found troublesome a page one story that crossed the line from promotion of gambling into dangerous misrepresentations ("Students find new ways to earn cash," Sept. 26).

With a headline designed to get students' attention (what student isn't seeking "new ways to earn cash"?), they're introduced to Kyle Obrecht, "who plays online poker and gambles at casinos to make rent."

"Gambling has paid for me to live in the last couple of years," he says.

I'm sure many students, working for minimum wage, will be excited to learn that gambling has "proven to be much more lucrative than any regular job" for him.

Moreover, it's easy to do. "At his first casino visit, Obrecht won $600 . . . [but] still plays online three days a week." Given his gambling riches, it's not surprising that "Obrecht ... said he is considering becoming a pro poker player on the side."

I'm willing to believe that Obrecht actually said the things the reporter quotes. But that even one student has found "online poker and ... casinos" sufficiently profitable to pay his rent and otherwise enable him "to live in the last couple years" is simply not credible.

The gambling industry is the only consistent winner. Most online and casino visitors leave with losses. Over a lifetime all do.

Gamblers are like fishermen who tell you about big fish but seldom about the days without a nibble. Gamblers are notoriously poor bookkeepers in remembering losses with the attention to detail accorded their winnings.

Did anyone at the paper see bookkeeping or other records, or have a second source, confirming Obrecht's assertions? Without confirmation this may be a very dangerous story based on little more than male college student braggadocio.

Why dangerous? Because as even quick Internet searches confirm, youthful gambling is widespread and serious. The American Academy of Pediatrics called youthful gambling "the addiction of the '90s."

Roughly one in four 18-year-olds gambled in casinos during the prior 12 months. Among the 55 percent of adolescents who are "casual or recreational gamblers," as many as 1.1 million aged 12 to 18 are "pathological gamblers."

As one study reports, "pathological gambling is associated with alcohol and drug use, truancy, low grades . . . and illegal activities to finance gambling. . . . Problems with gambling [increase] the likelihood of being involved in violent incidents [and] an increased risk for attempted suicide."

A story about the sad and serious consequences of youthful gambling would be a real journalistic service. A story about gambling as one of the "new ways to earn cash" is not.

Misrepresentations about dangerous behavior are dangerous business. The tobacco companies face a $200 billion class action suit for their misrepresentations to youth about the health benefits of "light" cigarettes.

I expect better than tobacco-company ethics from my local paper.
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains and