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Gambling With Addiction

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"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.

So when does a fun fling at the casino slot machine become a problem that requires attention?

Petry says there are red flags the gambler can notice herself, even before anyone else does. "When people start feeling guilty about how much they are gambling or start covering up how much they are spending, that's an early warning sign," she tells WebMD.

Participation in Gamblers Anonymous, or GA, modeled on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, is widely encouraged at all centers for treatment of gambling disorders. But Petry cautions that the female bingo player or slot machine junkie can sometimes find herself alienated at GA meetings heavily populated by men who have lost thousands at the casino and the racetrack.

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