A lovely, smiling young woman is featured on the cover of a brochure with the words “Need Help” in large letters. It would be easy to conclude it’s probably promoting dental services like whiter teeth, because one is immediately drawn to that captivating smile.

It’s a surprise, then, to see the much-smaller words “with a gambling problem?” underneath the query about help. The cover girl may indeed need some assistance, but it’s improbable she could look so vibrant and happy and be suffering from an addiction to gambling. The model clearly isn’t someone who just blew the family’s rent money on gambling and now has to keep her spouse from finding out.

But the brochure printed by the new Wyoming lottery — except for the cover — is all about the warning signs of problem gambling and how to get help by calling a national hotline at 1-800-522-4700.

Maybe the woman is supposed to represent a problem-gambling counselor; it’s impossible to tell just how this image is tied to the issue of gambling addiction. What Ed Atchison fears is that people who actually need help won’t ever see it, especially since it’s displayed behind another brochure promoting the Wyo Lotto.

Atchison, director of the Wyoming Council on Problem Gambling, said estimates of between 8,000 and 10,000 problem gamblers in Wyoming is conservative — there may be a lot more. With the Legislature approving a new form of legal gambling that sold its first lottery tickets last month, he’s certain there will soon be more people with gambling disorders.

“Nationally, one in six problem gamblers try to commit suicide,” Atchison noted. “Wyoming already has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.”

Gambling Brochure (click to enlarge)

The question is, how do people addicted to gambling get help? The Wyoming Lottery Commission, the Wyoming Department of Health (DOH), Atchison’s group and its national counterpart are working together to see those important services will be available.

Atchison is a strong advocate of assistance for problem gamblers, and he readily admits he’s sometimes been a thorn in the side of lottery officials. But he’s anxious to have things done right from the very start, and he’s more interested in developing a system that works than making friends.

Jon Clontz, chief executive officer of the Wyoming lottery and former head of the lottery in Oregon, said he’s empathetic. He points out he used to be the COO for Veterans Affairs in the state of Washington, and worked closely with doctors, nurses and addiction specialists who helped veterans with their problems, including compulsive gambling.

“I have a background more than most people about how these issues impact people,” Clontz said. “I care about it personally, and certainly was involved with it at the Oregon lottery.”

Clontz said the Wyoming lottery’s rollout was successful, with very few glitches, and the ones they had were easily fixed. He said if it maintains the pace of the first month of ticket sales, the lottery would generate about $15 million in its first year. The first $6 million will be given to cities, towns and counties; additional money will be spent on education.

Clontz said the lottery corporation has already taken some steps to help lotto players in Wyoming avoid becoming addicted to the two games: Powerball and Mega Millions. He noted the lottery only has draw games, and does not sell scratch tickets, “So there’s no instant gratification.”

“We make sure they are cash-only purchases, so people can’t purchase tickets on credit, like they do in some states,” he explained. “We also limit ticket purchases to $125 per transaction. It’s a small thing, but we want to discourage people from spending hundreds of dollars on tickets they can’t afford.”

Clontz said the corporation has even limited the number of lottery outlets around the state to about 400. “We’re not putting terminals everywhere they’re requested,” he related.

But to Atchison, that’s 400 places people have ready access to feed any gambling disorders they already possess or could acquire. While several lottery proponents successfully made the case to lawmakers that the horse racing industry has a much bigger impact on Wyoming than the lottery will, Atchison said there are only a handful of satellite outlets where someone can place a bet on horse or dog racing.

Wyo Lotto tickets, though, are as close as the nearest convenience store in many communities. Casper alone has 40 ticket outlets.

Atchison was upset to learn while the national hotline number was listed in small print on the back of each lottery ticket, it wasn’t identified as a hotline, but only vaguely referenced as for people who need undefined “help.” Clontz said with the DOH’s assistance, the lottery will work on “getting the language right.”

But the lottery’s head man said the most pressing need right now is to work with health officials to make certain there is counseling and treatment help available from the state. Atchison, who is a gambling addiction specialist, is concerned about the same issue.

The level of training needed to provide such services is a matter for the DOH and the state and national problem gambling councils to work out. “We need the department’s help, because obviously we can’t provide the treatment,” Clontz said.

DOH officials said there are currently addiction specialists, but the state does not employ anyone who specifically works with gambling addictions. Atchison wants to see those specialists trained or hired.

Clontz said there is a lack of awareness about problem gambling in Wyoming, “so we’re sort of creating (a campaign) within the parameters of what we are allowed to do by state statute.” He said he hopes other gambling interests, including the horse-racing industry, will collaborate at some point with the lottery to draw attention to the problem.

Lawmakers appropriated up to $200,000 in unclaimed prizes available to lottery officials annually to consult with DOH to design programs for treatment of compulsive gambling disorder and educational programs related to it.

There may be some stumbles along the way, but it seems all of the interested parties have the right goals in mind and a genuine desire to reach them. Most important of all, they need to avoid turf wars that could impede progress on a vital issue. If the state creates a new gambling opportunity, it has a moral and social obligation to do everything it can to minimize negative impacts on players who are compulsive gamblers.

Which brings me back to that brochure I mentioned. Is it the proper way to let people know that help is available? Clontz made no commitment to change it, but said he will seek input from the parties involved about the effectiveness of the brochure’s look and its contents.

“Everyone’s going to look at it and make sure it’s exactly what we want to say,” he said.

I don’t want to put any pretty models or advertising agencies out of work, but when it comes to listening to either marketing experts or gambling addiction specialists for the right message to send, I’d choose the latter every time.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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