As the number of casinos in Maryland grows, so does the need to be on the alert for any increase in problem gambling.

For the majority of Maryland players, gambling is enjoyable, but for a few it can spell trouble. Some 3.4 percent are pathological or problem gamblers, meaning they have lost control and keep gambling despite adverse consequences. This news comes from a survey of gambling behavior in the state meant to serve as a baseline to gauge the effects of legalized slot machines. It was conducted by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene last fall, before the state's first casino opened in Perryville, and the results were announced this week.


The survey both sounds a warning about potential problems and paints a picture of the average, untroubled player.

Maryland's rate of problem gamblers ranks relatively high when compared to results in a handful of other states that had used the same survey. It trails only California, with 3.7 percent, and Nevada, with 5.1 percent. Tom Cargiulo, director of the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, says the survey shows that there is a core group of troubled gamblers in the state who need programs that can help them identify and control their behavior. The General Assembly, in approving casinos in the state, set up provisions to funnel some of the income from slots into such programs. The survey of about 6,000 residents, conducted by telephone in September and October of last year, was a first step in this effort.

The survey found that single, young men, 18-29 years old, with incomes below $15,000 and less than a high school education and who gamble weekly have the highest risk of becoming pathological and problem gamblers.

As for the average player, the survey found that 90 percent of Marylanders have gambled — anything from betting in a college basketball pool to playing bingo to betting on horse racing — at least some time in their lives. A slice of the state's population gambles frequently. Twenty-two percent gamble monthly, and 15 percent gamble weekly.

Other items of note turned up by the survey were that as a person's level of education increases, the likelihood of problem gambling decreases. The dominant age group for gamblers in Maryland is 55-64, followed closely by the 45-54 contingent. The most prevalent forms of gambling Marylanders undertake are going to casinos and playing the lottery. But the most money was spent on Internet gambling, some $553 a month, followed by casinos at $214 a month, and slots outside casinos, $151. Marylanders drove, on average, more than 60 miles to get to gambling venues. The average gambling session for those who did not have problems lasted three to five hours. Problem gamblers stayed at it for six hours or more.

As for motivation, some 33 percent say gambling is fun, another 17 percent say it is challenge, and a whopping 51 percent say they do it to make money. (Good luck with that.)

Research shows that as more casinos are opened, there will be a rise in problem gambling but that it levels out over time. Health authorities estimate that anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 problem gamblers in Maryland could seek annual treatment in the coming years.

But it's clear that the state's education efforts need to increase. Joanna Franklin, head of the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling, says a shocking number of phone calls to the state's gambling hotline are from people seeking help with gambling strategy and logistics — like, "Should I split these tens?" — rather than help getting an addiction under control. She says the state needs to fund more advertising and outreach to make sure that people are aware of the problem and know where to get help — and that lawmakers must be vigilant that the money dedicated to gambling addiction in the slots legislation doesn't get diverted to some other purpose.

For most people who play, slots are harmless entertainment, and for the state, they could be a needed boost to an ailing budget. But the fact that a relatively large percentage of Marylanders showed signs of problem gambling before our first casinos opened should serve as a reminder to state leaders that the benefits do not come without a cost.