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Prevalence of problem gambling remains largely overlooked

April 7, 2011
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Analysis shows problem gambling is more common than alcohol dependence in adults

One of the most prominent researchers on the subject of gambling behavior credits the broad view of leaders at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) for much of the national research that exists on gambling prevalence. But because no research institute corresponding to an NIAAA has been established for gambling, the subject overall still lacks the attention that an issue such as alcoholism garners, says national expert John W. Welte.

The irony, Welte says, is that an examination of research data covering adulthood reveals that problem gambling actually is more prevalent than alcohol dependence.

“Gambling falls between the cracks,” Welte says in discussing the latest prevalence research that he coordinated, published in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies. “My colleague Grace Barnes and I have received four grants to study gambling, and three have been from NIAAA. In these we have emphasized gambling’s link with alcohol [use].”

The latest analysis looked at combined data from adult and adolescent surveys that Welte and colleagues conducted in 1999-2000 and 2005-2007, respectively. The researchers sought to obtain the most comprehensive look to date at the prevalence of any gambling, frequent gambling and problem gambling across the lifespan. The original data sets were obtained through results of telephone surveys.

The analysis found a prominent difference in the trajectory of problem gambling behaviors across the life span, when compared with the pattern for alcohol dependence. While for alcohol dependence the prevalence peaks at age 18-19 and then falls off rapidly, problem gambling prevalence does not peak until age 31-40, and the prevalence overall in adulthood is greater than the prevalence of alcohol dependence.

Welte, of the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions, says that for this most recent analysis problem gambling was defined as endorsement of three Diagnostic Interview Schedule (DIS) criteria; this is meant to correspond to the three DSM-IV criteria that must be met to satisfy the American Psychiatric Association (APA) standard for alcohol dependence, he says.

The analysis also found that frequent gambling (defined as 52 or more times in the past year) is highest in the 31-to-60 age group and peaks in the 50s, whereas daily drinking of one drink or more peaks in the 20-21 range. Gambling behaviors covered a wide range of outlets from office pools to lotteries to casino gambling.

While Asian and black subjects were found to be the least likely to have gambled at all in the past year, whites had the lowest rate of problem gambling among all ethnic groups studied.

Welte highlights the finding of significant gender differences in gambling behavior, with males having higher rates of gambling at younger ages. Men’s gambling behavior peaks in the late teens, while women’s gambling activity peaks significantly later.

The researchers remark that even those organizations devoted to increasing awareness about gambling have tended to underplay the extent of problem behaviors in the population. The journal article states that the National Council on Problem Gambling’s assertion that problem gambling is “rare but treatable” does not appear to be supported by data showing problem gambling to be more prominent than alcohol dependence in adults.