Self-banning at casinos can be a roll of the dice
Not many states have the voluntary exclusion lists.
Virginia Ormanian burned through most of her retirement savings playing slot machines in Detroit casinos last year -- something she should not have been allowed to do.
The 49-year-old gambling addict had voluntarily banned herself in August 2002 from the casinos through a state program that was supposed to keep her out.
"I was counting on the casinos to honor their contract," Ormanian said. "I had to get my life back together."
Now Ormanian and Norma Astourian are suing the casinos for breach of contract. They say the gambling companies didn't enforce the rules of the "dissociated persons" list on which they placed themselves.
As gambling spreads across the country, a handful of states have created self-exclusion lists that bar people from entering casinos. Problem gamblers who have blacklisted themselves are supposed to forfeit jackpots and face arrest if caught inside.
The lists have raised questions in the gambling industry and given rise to studies about their effectiveness. They've come under legal assault from gambling addicts who believe it's up to casinos to ensure they stop frittering away their money.
"It was a vehicle to allow the gambler to help himself. It's through the genius of our legal system that this has metamorphasized into a potential risk for casinos," said David O. Stewart, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, who has defended gambling companies in self-exclusion and similar lawsuits and advises the American Gaming Association.
Missouri, Louisiana, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey have self-exclusion lists with more than 8,600 names. Indiana has passed laws to enact a list.
Nevada, the nation's largest gambling state, doesn't fund a self-exclusion list, though casinos will bar patrons on request.
Carol O'Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, said it would be a logistical nightmare in a state in which slot machines are also found in bars, gas stations and supermarkets.
"You'd have to police every 7-Eleven and restaurant," she said. "We need to be providing treatment."
Missouri was one of the first states to introduce the exclusion program in 1997 and counts more than 6,400 people on its list.
Kevin Mullally, executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission, said the list was conceived as a tool to help people shake their addiction.
"It's not a panacea or a quick fix," he said.
Harvard Medical School's Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders was awarded a grant to study the effectiveness of Missouri's program.
Robert Ladouceur, a professor of psychology at Laval University in Quebec, said his new study involving three casinos and about 200 compulsive gamblers shows "there is some usefulness" to self-exclusion programs.
One casino operator isn't waiting for definitive data.
Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment intends to create a database of problem gamblers who would be barred for life from its 19 properties in the United States.
People can be placed on the company's "Responsible Gaming List" voluntarily -- or involuntarily if casino employees determine patrons are problem gamblers.
Lurking behind such lists is a question about the legality of the contracts people sign with the states and casinos, and whether the pacts are enforceable.
A suit filed by Ormanian and Astourian against the Michigan Gaming Control Board was dismissed.
Stewart said no plaintiff has yet to win such a lawsuit, but a verdict against the casinos could have repercussions.