With little fanfare, the Oregon Lottery is getting out of the business of guiding problem gamblers to services that can help them.
The lottery has pulled an award-winning ad that urges problem gamblers to seek help, it has dropped its membership in the Oregon Council on Problem Gambling — which it helped start — and lottery officials will no longer attend conferences on gambling addiction.
Counselors and some lawmakers say they’re bewildered, frustrated and infuriated by the move. Lottery officials say their hands are tied by a recent state Department of Justice opinion, which says the agency can’t spend operating dollars to “mitigate harms” caused by lottery games.
The ruling doesn’t affect the 1 percent of state lottery profits given to Oregon health agencies for problem gambling treatment. But that money is already budgeted for treatment programs, leaving none for advertising or other outreach efforts.
“To change course so dramatically is really kind of a sad day for Oregon,” said Jeff Marotta, who runs Problem Gambling Solutions in Portland, and consults frequently with lottery staff. “Oregon was looked upon as a state that’s really been progressive with the way we’ve approached issues of gambling and problem gambling.”
The lottery was the focus of much legislative inquiry this year as lawmakers struggled to find ways to spend gambling money on schools and other programs while trying to help addicts who provide a sizable chunk of that money. An estimated 81,000 Oregonians are considered problem or pathological gamblers, but only a small fraction seek treatment.
Legislative interest prompted Lottery Director Larry Niswender to ask the Department of Justice for a set of rulings. Among them, he wanted to know whether the lottery could spend money on programs that try to limit the damage caused by video poker and slot machines.
The answers he received were complex. Yes, the March 18 opinion states, the lottery can spend money on “responsible gambling” programs that educate players on how to set limits for themselves, but not to help problem gamblers. In the last fiscal year, the lottery spent $1.5 million on TV ads aimed at problem gambling.
The Justice Department opinion, written by Chief Counsel Steven Wolf, relies on a 1994 Oregon Supreme Court ruling that prohibited the lottery from spending its operating dollars on community mental health programs aimed at addicted gamblers. In his opinion, Wolf says promoting responsible gambling is part of the lottery’s mission, which voters inserted in the state constitution in 1984. Steering problem gamblers to treatment services isn’t, the opinion states.
Niswender told the lottery commission that the agency would end all spending on problem gambling ads and its participation in the problem gambling council.
“When the dust settled, that’s where we landed,” said spokesman Chuck Baumann. He noted the lottery already has contracted for new ads that stress setting money and time limits and highlight the “fun” aspects of playing. Video poker and slot machines will still bear stickers that list a toll-free help number, he said.
Marotta questioned the Justice Department ruling and its fine line between responsible gambling and problem gambling.
“What this says is do everything you can to promote responsible gambling, but once someone crosses over, you can’t use your funds to help them,” Marotta said. “That’s ludicrous.”
Removal of the problem gambling ads, which have run on and off for some 20 years, could have a direct impact on the number of people seeking help at treatment centers, Baumann acknowledged.
“Whenever we would run the treatment ads, they would see a spike in calls during the week they ran,” he said.
Elisa Dozono, who chairs the Oregon Lottery Commission, said despite pulling the ads, the agency “remains committed to working with the problem gambling community to make sure the lottery is operating in the most responsible way possible.”
Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, was among the most active lawmakers pushing for more efforts to combat problem gambling. She sees the Department of Justice opinion as something of an end run around the Legislature.
“I was disturbed the question was even asked, frankly,” Tomei said. “And I was very disturbed by the response.”
She said she hopes the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees addiction and mental health issues, will pick up some of the slack. But that’s unlikely any time soon, said Nicole Corbin, addiction services manager for the Health Authority.
“We don’t have that amount of funding lying around to step in and replace that,” Corbin said. “We’re looking for additional funding sources.”
The $10 million the agency receives every two years from lottery revenue for gambling treatment already has been spoken for, she said. The impact of the lottery’s retreat from problem gambling help will be “significant,” she said.
“You don’t hear messages about problem gambling from anyone other than the lottery and the Oregon Health Authority,” Corbin said. “If they are not providing the information, there’s really not any replacement for that.”