10/31/2003 12:00AM

Root of a compulsion is the $64,000 question


Even though the gaming industry markets the glitz, glamour, and excitement of Las Vegas, it is the gamblers that provide the pulse of the business. It is a Catch-22 situation, because while it's nice that folks gamble, those in the business really don't want them to lose their shirts.

Over the past couple of decades the gaming industry has developed other profit centers, including retail shopping, restaurants, and shows. While those things generate important revenue, the need for gamblers, especially the ultra-big ones called whales, goes on unabated.

Problem gamblers are a negative side of the business that can create public-relations nightmares. While each casino is charged with promoting responsible gaming, who knows where to draw the invisible line in the sand.

Various clinical studies have tried to pinpoint the causes of the gambling addiction. Howard Shaffer, director of the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions, reported: "As far as the brain is concerned, a reward is a reward, regardless of whether it comes from ingesting cocaine or having an exhilarating experience while gambling. And where there is a reward, there is a risk of addiction."

Shaffer, who spoke recently at the National Center for Responsible Gaming's conference at the Mirage, believes that policy-makers should create a new model for the addictive use of gambling, drugs, and alcohol. They should all be treated similarly by the health-care industry.

Another study was done on a drug called Mirapex, which is used by patients of Parkinson's disease. It revealed an unexpected side effect, compulsive gambling.

"The risk of gambling problems in a Parkinson's patient is very small," said Dr. Mark Stacy of the Muhammed Ali Parkinson Research Center in Phoenix. "However, it may be appropriate for doctors to inform patients of this potential risk."

The reason for this unusual behavior is that Mirapex is a "dopamine agonists" that activates the brain cells.

Then last month, the Atlantic City Press reported on the saga of an admitted compulsive gambler named Daniel Santangelo. It is an amazing story.

The New Jersey Casino Control Board ordered Santangelo to pay back more than $64,000 in winnings. It seems Santangelo had registered himself into the state's self-exclusion program because of problem gambling. A clause in the agreement is that neither side shall "collect any winnings or recover any losses" while the person is barred from all New Jersey casinos.

Santangelo, however, continued to go to the casinos and had a 10-week run in which he won more than $64,000. The commission did not detail how Santangelo got caught or how he won the money. But it did say it wanted the money back and will go to civil court and sue if it has to.

When Santangelo requested a hearing before the commission, he in essence waived his confidentiality because the hearings are public.

"I'm not at all surprised. This is such a powerful addiction," said Arnie Wexler, one of the nation's foremost experts on compulsive gambling. "It's not about the winning and the losing, it's about being in the action."

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.