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Gambling With Addiction

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Tavares, who is with the Addiction Center at the University of Calgary in Alberta, presented his research at the recent annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association held in New Orleans.

Interestingly, Tavares and colleagues also found that women generally have access to a narrower range of gambling outlets but that the games they do participate in tend to be the most addictive. Those outlets include the old and the new: bingo and video lottery terminals.

The latter are video simulations of games such as poker, often found in casinos but also in many bars and lounges. Their addictive appeal, Tavares says, lies in the fact that they offer rapid, nearly immediate, gratification. "Video lottery terminals are the most common gambling devices," he says. "It's a really fast game. You place a coin in the slot, push a button, and have a result almost immediately."

Gambling addiction expert Nancy Petry, PhD, tells WebMD that the findings of a later age of onset and more rapid progression to seeking treatment roughly mirror what she and other researchers looking at gender differences among gamblers have found. But she believes the faster progression to treatment likely reflects a greater willingness among women to seek treatment, rather than any heightened vulnerability to addiction.

Nevertheless, one thing is unequivocally clear: The number of women gamblers in treatment has exploded.

"What is striking is that 10 or fifteen years ago 95% of the people in treatment for gambling were men," Petry tells WebMD. "Now it's 60% men and 40% women. Programs all over the United States and Canada are seeing this, and compulsive gambling hotlines are reporting massive increases in women callers."

Petry is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center and principal investigator at the Gambling Treatment and Research Center in Farmington, Conn.

Petry says that by far, the biggest factor in the increase is in the expanding legalization of gambling. Forty-eight states -- all but Hawaii and Utah -- have legalized gambling, and 27 states have casinos.

The study by Tavares suggests that women may seek out gambling, and later become addicted, for reasons that are different from men's -- a finding that Petry says is also well known, though difficult to quantify. The prevailing wisdom is that men gamble for the high-energy rush that comes from "action gambling" like betting at the racetrack or dice games. Women are believed to be more prone to "escape gambling" in the form of slot machines or video lottery terminals.

While Tavares found that women gamblers tended to be single, Petry says she has found just the opposite, and she says some women gamblers report being in unhappy marriages. Her center is also conducting a study at six sites in the U.S. and Canada to test the hypothesis that women gamblers may be more likely to have a history of physical or sexual abuse.

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