Row of flashy video slot machines

Ask many a problem gambler in Columbus, especially those who play video slot machines, and they’ll probably tell you this: “I hit big when Hollywood and Scioto Downs first opened, but I haven’t won big since.”

When the two casinos opened in 2012 it was a curiosity for many. Vegas-style gaming was now just a very, very short drive away. No longer did you have to cross state borders or fly to Nevada or New Jersey.

Six years later, here comes the (obvious) fallout from having a casino in your backyard: gambling addiction.

According to a study by WalletHub, a personal finance website, the state is tied for fourth with New Jersey for adults having a gambling problem. The factors weighed were the percentage of adults with gambling disorders, the number of gambling-addiction treatment programs, and the number of gambling-related arrests per 100,000 population.

Not surprising, Ohio is spending more and more to prevent and treat gambling addiction. For fiscal year 2015, the state spent $5.8 million to fight gambling problems, which is up from $4.5 million the previous year. This money comes from 2 percent share of taxes paid by the state’s four casinos.

“We are just now seeing the major consequences for having a casino in our community,” says Bruce Jones, a nationally-certified gambling counselor with Maryhaven, Central Ohio’s most comprehensive treatment center helping people and families deal with addiction and mental illness. “We’ve been increasing the number of people we see every year since we started this six or seven years ago. We now have Gamblers Anonymous meetings everyday of the week in Central Ohio.”

Jones agrees that many problem gamblers hit big when they first start to gamble. There are conspiracy theories as to why there’s so much beginner’s luck. But it’s no conspiracy, says Jones, just an effective business model. By offering “player’s cards” with free play to newcomers, for example, this allows casinos to track who’s playing for the first time and who keeps coming back and back.

“They get lured in with the free play, or you get a free buffet, or you can win a new car,” says Jones. “They do target the entire population, especially seniors.”

Perhaps the most insidious gambling option of the past twenty years is the video slot machine, which of course is (un)affectionately known as the “one armed bandit”. But today’s video slots, with their captivatingly hypnotic computer graphics and animation, are different beasts altogether.

“They’re designed to draw you in like a moth to a flame,” says Jones. “It’s almost like crack they’re so addictive. They’re playing a game where you don’t have to think, and they start having a relationship with an inanimate object. And they’re hitting the button, hitting button, hitting the button.”

A recent Atlantic feature story on addiction to video slots told the story of Scott Stevens of Stuebenville, a once successful financier with wife and kids. After hitting big on a recreational trip to a nearby casino, the trance-like spell video slots can cast soon had him hooked.

Stevens burned through hundreds-of-thousands of dollars, stole from his job, and was fired. He committed suicide and his wife has filed a lawsuit against the casino alleging the video slots and the system that runs them is calibrated to prey on the weak.

Casino patrons bet more than $37 billion annually in the US, stated the Atlantic article, more than what is spent at sporting events, going to movies and music, combined. The most played game of choice are video slots, of course.

Jones was asked whether the state is doing enough and spending enough to battle this emerging addiction that affects all classes and age groups of society.

“For now the 2 percent spent on gambling addiction treatment is enough,” he says.

When Ohio’s casinos first opened, the state took a cue from Nevada by implementing a “voluntary exclusion rule” where a problem gambler can ban themselves from a casino for one year, five years or their lifetime.

Jones says this works to some degree, but he is finding that more and more of his patients are violating the ban multiple times and subsequently getting charged with trespassing, making their situation worse. For Ohio, he says, school is still in session when it comes to understanding gambling addiction.

“It’s still a learning curve for the state even though it’s been five years,” he says.

The one thing casinos will always offer, says Jones, is the dream.

“I can come in here and get rich, and all my problems will be gone, but that almost is never the case,” he says.