As South Carolina lawmakers continue to float the idea of legalizing casinos to help raise state revenue, they are likely to be confronted with another issue: expanding and funding the state's existing gambling addiction treatment efforts.
All 46 counties in the Palmetto State already have programs available for people looking to break their gambling habits as part of the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.
But administrators say the department's staffing would likely need to grow in order to conduct screenings and counseling for those seeking help if state lawmakers decide to tap casinos for their tax-generating capability.
“I am sure we would need more because of an increased capacity of people coming through the door,” said Virginia Ervin, the state's Gambling Services Coordinator.
Last year, the state's gambling addiction treatment efforts helped 315 people pass through counselling services, which is tailored to help people resist the addictive urge to bet away their income or life savings. Those efforts were funded through the state's unclaimed prize money from the state Lottery Commission, which runs public-service television ads promoting its gambling-addiction website and hotline.
The price tag for the program is $50,000 in the upcoming year.
Lee Dutton, the chief of staff for DAODAS, says they have not yet analyzed how much of an increase they might expect to see if South Carolina approves the slot machines and table games at casinos. He said they would likely need to study how other states, like New Jersey or Mississippi, were impacted after approving casinos in the past.
The state's gambling addiction program has been in operation for more than a decade now, but there is no accurate tracking of how those services have expanded or contracted in recent years. The department also doesn't track the demographics of the people that are calling into the South Carolina Gambling Helpline because the staff are focused on conducting a screening over the phone to determine if the caller should seek further help.
Some of the callers, Ervin said, like to gamble but aren't necessarily addicted. They are just concerned they are buying a few too many scratch-off tickets every month. Others, however, have all of the signs of a psychological addiction to the games of chance — no different than individuals that are hooked on alcohol or drugs.
Even without casinos currently in the state, Dutton said there are already South Carolinians being confronted with gambling addiction. In the age of online gaming, opportunities to gamble are ubiquitous and just a click away.
Some of the worst stories Ervin has heard include individuals that were prepared for retirement and instead found themselves gambling away their nest egg. She's seen people lose jobs, homes and even marriages over the incessant need to cast a bet.
“We do get a lot of family members that call in,” Ervin said. "Some have had their spouses lose their money for rent, a house payment, whatever.”