Addressing the Issue of Underage Gaming

22 January 2001
With the rapid expansion of gambling over the past 10 years, 48 states in the U.S. and all Canadian provinces offer some forms of privately owned and/or government-sponsored gambling. While gambling generates obvious and important economic benefits - especially to tribal governments in the form of reduced rates of unemployment, improved housing, health care and educational opportunities - there is no question that it also carries certain costs, one of which is pathological gambling.

While most forms of gambling are illegal for underage youth, there is compelling evidence that, in fact, youngsters are gambling in unprecedented numbers.

From what is known about alcoholism and drug addiction among young people, it should come as no surprise to learn that the incidence of pathological gambling among adolescents consistently have been found to be twice that for adults. A 1995 study conducted at the Harvard Medical School Division on Addiction found that between 4.4 percent and 7.4 percent meet the criteria for pathological gambling. For this reason, the issue of youth gambling is becoming a major concern for North American communities, policy makers, tribal governments and the general public.

To address the growing issue of underage gambling from a global perspective, the North American Think Tank on Youth Gambling Issues was convened in April 1995 by the Massachusetts and Minnesota Councils on Compulsive Gambling and the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions. The Think Tank, held in Boston, brought together more than three dozen individuals from Canada and the U.S. Although their backgrounds and perspectives were widely diverse, they shared a common commitment, to invest their time, energy and considerable talents in the development of a binational strategy to address the problem of youth gambling. Representatives of tribal governments, gaming officials, academics, and the judiciary, combined their creative energy with treatment providers, researchers, and bankers. In this climate, free of turf battles and buck-passing, this group of concerned thinkers was able to construct a framework to deal effectively with underage gambling issues.

Funding for the North American Think Tank was provided by progressive gaming operators, bankers, insurance executives, lawyers and tribal governments in Minnesota and Mississippi, two of America's significant gaming markets. This fund raising effort was led by Thomas Brosig, President of Grand Casinos, Inc. and a tiny, yet tenacious group of concerned business men and women.

The Think Tank participants came out strongly in favor of aggressive self-policing as the most effective way to prevent minors from gaining illegal access to gambling.

The industry itself, not state, provincial or national governments, agreed, should develop stringent standards to enforce the prohibition of underage gambling. Moreover, the industry should support and implement stiff penalties for vendors who fail to enforce the legal gambling age limits.

Such mechanisms only address the most immediate aspects of compulsive gambling. Thus, the Think Tank found critical needs for consistency in the areas of research, treatment, education and public awareness.

The recommendations were ambitious yet direct:

  • An international research effort to ascertain the prevalence of youth gambling
  • A comprehensive inventory that would identify and qualify treatment programs for young compulsive gamblers in the U.S. and Canada
  • The development of curricula and programs to educate children, parents and teachers about issues of underage gambling
  • Use of the media to educate the public and policy makers about issues of youth gambling and a voluntary code to discourage advertising for gaming that is geared toward underage consumers

As meaningful as the North American Think Tank discussions were, they are but the first step in what clearly must be an on-going effort to implement a blueprint for responsible public policy in the management of underage gambling issues. Think Tank participants have helped define such a plan to guide the development of new public policy.

Such a willingness, coupled with a continued open dialogue from all points of interest on the spectrum, helps assure that this responsible and responsive approach to the management of youth gambling issues will continue for years to come.

Elizabeth George is the chief executive officer of the North American Training Institute ( For more than a decade, NATI has provided responsible gaming programs for the gaming and wagering industries throughout the world. Its programs include a 24-hour compulsive gambling Helpline service with language translations, conceptualizing of company responsible gaming mission statements, policy statements, employee assistance programs, program collaborations and customized responsible gaming multimedia programs. For further information, contact: North American Training Institute, 314 West Superior Street, Suite 702, Duluth, MN 55802, USA or (218) 722-1503.