Every March, as Americans fill out their NCAA Basketball Tournament brackets and shell out cash to compete in March Madness pools, gambling enters the public spotlight, and this year, it is under more scrutiny than usual. In New Jersey, Rutgers University's School of Social Work recently announced it would look deeper into the nature of gambling and its effects not only on gamblers themselves, but on the state economy.

"Gambling, both legalized and online illegal gambling, is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world," said Lia Nower, director of Rutgers's new Center for Gambling Studies, where researchers will study gambling addictions and culture.

She said the Rutgers program is unique compared to the few existing research institutes in the nation because it aims to form a more comprehensive understanding of gambling, she added.

"Most [institutes] either focus on problem-gambling research, or overall gambling policy development, but not both," she said, adding the Center's creators saw a need for a place that would train counselors, evaluate policies and serve as a resource for the state legislature.

Ed Looney, executive director for the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, said he is glad Rutgers opened such a center on its campus, because he said schools across the nation lack sufficient education programs.

According to Loone, who said he has met with Nower to discuss the Center, the gambling rate among college students is twice that of the adult population.

Females are growing more susceptible to addiction, he added, which he said can evolve from innocent sports bets, including March Madness pools.

"They love the action," he said. "Pools are so easy to join, and after the tournament is over, then baseball starts, [and then] the NBA playoffs. People get right back into it."

He said though people rarely get addicted to sports pools themselves, the pools are an introduction to sports betting.

 

Nower said the Center, which recently started a Gamblers Anonymous meeting at Rutgers and may soon offer on-site treatment for gambling addicts, has received support from the university, state officials, opponents of gambling and leaders of the gambling industry.

However, some anti-gambling groups still question the objectivity of such research centers, because they are sometimes partially funded by industry leaders.

"I'm always very cautious because gambling interests have been able to invade a lot of colleges' research," said Diane Berlin, vice chairwoman of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

"The integrity of research is extremely important," she said, "and it should not be diminished by people who stand to profit from it."

Christine Reilly, executive director of the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders Division — a program affiliated with Harvard Medical School — said she does not think the Institute's research will be influenced by outside interests.

She said her organization, for example, is funded by the National Center for Responsible Gaming, which receives money from various gaming industry sources, but has in place many buffers designed to protect its independence.

"Our contract makes it very clear that they cannot interfere with our research," she said. "In addition, we have independent panels of distinguished scientists who review research and make decisions."

By : David Brand