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America's betting fever creates army of addicts

THE SPREAD of casinos, slot machines and lottery games across the US has showered unexpected prosperity on many, from Indian tribes to once-tatty tourist resorts. It has also turned millions of Americans into "pathological" addicts who cannot resist the spin of the wheel or the turn of the card.

The social downside to the gambling boom that has touched nearly every state, generating $50bn (pounds 38bn) in annual revenue, is depicted in a long- awaited report by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, appointed by Congress three years ago.

The report, which cost $5m and involved 250 hours of hearings, urges federal and state politicians to consider an "explicit moratorium" on the further expansion of the industry to allow time to address the addiction issue and treat those who are afflicted. Among those cited as addicted to gambling are an estimated 1.1 million teenagers.

The findings were hailed by gambling opponents. The report will "act like the Surgeon General's 1964 report on smoking and health, a wake-up call for America on the dangers of gambling", said Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalised Gambling.

The nine-member commission also underlined the economic benefits the industry has brought to some. The report says: "Sleepy backwaters have become metropolises almost overnight; skyscrapers rise on the beaches at once-fading tourist areas; legions of employees testify to the hope and opportunities that casinos have brought them."

Two thirds of the report dwells on the estimated 15.4 million Americans who are either problem or pathological gamblers. It concludes "that a serious pathological gambling problem exists and that it must be addressed aggressively". Leo McCarthy, a commission member, said: "That's a fairly heavy price to pay unless we go after that downside."

The commission also recommended raising the minimum age for gambling from 18 to 21 in all states; banning the industry from making political campaign contributions; outlawing wagers on college and university sports events; curbing lottery advertising, and reducing outlets for lottery sales.

Lotteries attracted more concern in the report because they are so easily accessed by compulsive gamblers. Usually, patrons must travel some distance to reach a casino resort.