Gambling addiction is rising amid the COVID pandemic

The last bet Lou Remillard placed was an online sports bet of $ 2,000 on a Major League baseball game. The 46-year-old Las Vegas restaurateur was drunk and broken at the time and said that being alive was no longer important to him.

After Remillard lost that last bet and owed tens of thousands of dollars, Remillard went to a 12-stage meeting about gambling addiction the next day for the first time. It was October 1st, 2018.

“This is the date I’m protecting,” Remillard said one recent afternoon from the crpe restaurant he owns, a short drive from the Las Vegas Strip. He agreed that Monday to stay sober, stop gambling and advise those who find themselves in the same predicament.

“We can only help one another,” he said, a task that has become even more difficult with the ongoing stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of people have been alone and struggling with their addiction,” said Remillard, who holds online morning recovery meetings most days of the week. “You are not alone.”

Lou Remillard wears a “One Day At A Time” bracelet.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In contrast to the more visible addictions, problem gambling is relatively easy to hide, yet around 2 million Americans annually feel alone, ashamed, and in many cases broke.

A recent survey by the National Council on Problem Gambling, a Washington-based nonprofit, found that the risk has doubled since 2018. The survey of 2,000 people across the country focused on attitudes and experiences of gambling both online and in casinos.

In addition, the group’s helpline has seen a significant increase in use. As of November of this year, the helpline had received 238,600 calls, an average of almost 21,700 per month. In 2018 and 2019, the average monthly calls were 16,600.

Similar hotlines in about a dozen states have seen a surge in calls from players in their twenties, thirties, and forties since spring 2020, said Janet Miller, executive director of Louisiana Assn. on Compulsive Gambling, which oversees hotlines in states across the country.

This month, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission reported an increase in the number of people who voluntarily excluded themselves from the gambling halls of the state’s casinos. Almost 1,300 people have participated since the Voluntary Self-Exclusion Program launched in 2015, the same year the state’s first casino opened. There are currently 1,000 residents – most of all time – enrolled in the program.

“This milestone is significant, but it represents a small percentage of those who have difficulty controlling their gambling,” said Mark Vander Linden, Commission Research Director.

An advertisement for BetMGM Sportsbook in Las Vegas

An ad promoting BetMGM Sports Betting, an online betting platform, in front of the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The surge in gambling addiction was fueled by the rapid growth of legalized sports betting and the pandemic, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Sports betting increased nationwide after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling paved the way for legalization beyond Nevada. Thirty states and Washington, DC now allow some form of legal sports betting.

According to the American Gaming Assn. $ 3.16 billion in sports betting was generated in the first 10 months of 2021, more than twice as much as in the same period last year.

“Everyone who benefits from sports betting – leagues, gambling companies, state and tribal governments – should put some of that revenue back into preventing and treating gambling addiction,” said Whyte, noting that some organizations, including the NFL, have begun to commit TV spots work during games that encourage responsible betting. The National Football League Foundation recently made a $ 6.2 million grant to Whytes’ group to help improve hotlines and launch communications initiatives focused on responsible gambling, among other things.

Las Vegas: the way back

This is the third and final in a series of casual articles about Las Vegas emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Including sports betting, the US’s nearly 1,000 commercial casinos grossed more than $ 44.15 billion in 2021, a new record, according to the American Gaming Assn. The previous record of 2019 was $ 43.65 billion.

The lure is difficult for many to ignore, and with so many options available, the urge can often get heightened.

“You don’t become a problem gambler right away … It happens over time,” said Alan M. Feldman, a distinguished responsible gaming fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

It’s also behavior that is often ignored. The American Psychiatric Assn. finds that only 1 in 10 people with a gambling disorder usually seek treatment.

A woman is holding a photo.

Bea Aikens is holding a photo of her sister Lanie, who died of a drug overdose. Aikens, who struggled with gambling herself, found casino receipts in Lanie’s car.

(Shaban Athuman / For the time)

“Like a moth to a flame,” said Bea Aikens, who recently moved from her Las Vegas area home to Lynchburg, Virginia, while continuing to address her addiction to video poker. “It was difficult. I was in a very difficult place.”

For years she hid her problem from family members and even kept a secret mailbox so they wouldn’t see the bills piling up. Even when they found out about their addiction, they said they couldn’t fully grasp its intensity.

“When it comes to gambling, people just want to say ‘stop’ because we’re not consuming,” she said. “But it is not that simple.”

In her 25 years of recovery, Aikens has advised many others who are struggling, regularly attended 12-Step Problem Gambling Meetings, and worked to educate people who are unfamiliar with their addiction in the hopes that they will realize that it is more of a disease than a moral weakness. Since March 2020, when the lockdown began, Aikens has seen an increase in the number of people seeking help.

“We’re not addicted to money,” she says. “It’s that high of dopamine … it’s really an invisible addiction.”

And it often overlaps with other addictions, she said. Her sister Lanie died of a drug overdose in 2008 after being exempt from gambling for several years. When Aikens searched her sister’s car, she found dozens of casino receipts and immediately realized she was relapsing. To honor the memory of her sister and her own struggles, Aikens now shares her two stories whenever she finds an opportunity.

“We have to get the word out and let people know they are not alone,” said Aikens.

When Remillard came to the recovery meetings in 2018, Aikens was there and eventually opened up about his own struggles.

Lou Remillard waits for customers in his restaurant.

Lou Remillard lights a candle for customers celebrating a birthday at his Crepe Expectations restaurant in Las Vegas.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Remillard has been owned by Crepe Expectations since 2011. The restaurant quickly became successful and soon generated sizeable income, most of which it lost to gambling. A few years ago, he said, he played an average of $ 50,000 a month.

At work, he would watch games on TV and place sports bets online. In the evenings he went to a casino to play blackjack and often drank a gallon of whiskey in a single day.

His addiction to twins increased and eventually his wife left him and took her son. The night before he sought help, Remillard said, he played for several hours and drank two liters of whiskey in just over four hours. He hoped he would die.

“When I woke up, I was alive, I was here,” he recalls. “I had to change – for myself, for my family.”

He was $ 250,000 in debt, but with friends’ encouragement, he went to 12-step programs and began to rebuild his life. He tries to live by the teachings – among other things, he admits that he was powerless to face his gambling addiction at the time. Now he shares his story with other compulsive gamers and offers help as he continues to heal.

Lou Remillard is sitting in his office

Lou Remillard in his restaurant office playing on a computer. Now he’s attending a 12-step program for compulsive gamblers.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Although he and his wife Jennifer split up, they remain friends and work at the restaurant together, Remillard said. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has hosted a daily Zoom meeting called the “Breakfast Club” with people across the country. Some share their experiences and daily struggles; others listen quietly.

“The important thing is that we keep showing up,” Remillard said recently one afternoon in his restaurant. He wears a bracelet that says “One day at a time”. He got a tattoo that read “Acceptance” on his right wrist.

When Remillard had to take a majority of his employees on leave during the pandemic shutdown, he and Jennifer worked long hours to keep the business going. Nevertheless, he made time for his meetings.

He’s lost his father in the past few months and his hobby was working on his father’s old truck, a 2006 Dodge Ram 2500. He spends much of his time looking for and buying parts of American businesses – just like his father did would have liked. he said – and tinkered with the truck.

Lou Remillard is standing next to a truck.

Lou Remillard stands next to a modified 2006 Dodge 2500 that belonged to his late father.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A few words are written on the rims of the tires, according to which he lives in his sobriety: acceptance, faith, devotion.

“I’m healing,” he said. “I keep popping up, that’s all we can do.”

This is the third and final in a series of casual articles about Las Vegas emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is the first story and here is the second story.

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