History of Gambling in Wisconsin

In the first decade of the twenty-first century the U.S. gambling industry continued to grow and expand, but less rapidly than it did in the two previous decades. In Wisconsin, however, the profile was the exact opposite. Gambling grew at an extraordinary rate after the Wisconsin Legislature legalized the lottery in 1989.

Wisconsin’s legalized gambling began with the State sponsored lottery and the Legislature’s approval of dog racing. Soon afterward, the state’s Native American Tribes, which had been operating high stakes bingo parlors, entered casino gaming, having won federal government approval in the courts after Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Gambling flourished, growing exponentially through the 1990s. As the industry grew, so did those persons who experienced problems with gambling. They fall into three categories:

  • At-risk gamblers – those who have a tendency to develop into problem or pathological (compulsive) gamblers.
  • Problem gamblers – those who have risky gambling behaviors that adversely affect the individual’s well being; this may include the issues of relationships, family, financial standings, social matters, and vocational pursuits.
  • Compulsive pathological gamblers – those with a progressive gambling disorder characterized by a continuous or periodic loss of control over gambling; a preoccupation with gambling and a continuation of the behavior despite adverse consequences.

While Wisconsin’s gambling industry was growing, its population was growing as well. Surveys performed by various state agencies throughout the country confirm that gamblers make up about five to seven percent of the population. If this is true, and every indication points in this direction, there are approximately 333,000 at-risk, problem or compulsive gamblers in the state of Wisconsin.

Problem and compulsive gambling is no different than addictions to alcohol and drugs. Since 1980, the American Psychiatric Association has recognized compulsive gambling as a mental disorder. It is said to be the “hidden addiction,” because unlike alcohol and drug abuse, most people don’t see any of the symptoms. Even spouses and other family members seldom recognize the problem until it is too late.

Compulsive gamblers are completely preoccupied with gambling. It becomes the focal point of their lives, just as the lives of alcohol and drug abusers revolve around obtaining and consuming alcohol or drugs. The compulsive gambler becomes obsessed with getting money to gamble so that he or she can pay off past gambling debts. Like alcohol and drug abuse, compulsive gambling feeds upon itself. When compulsive gamblers lose at gambling, they “chase their losses.” Instead of seeing gambling as the problem, they see it as the solution. It’s also important to note that they have a higher rate of suicide than other addictions. Eventually compulsive gamblers ask relatives and friends to “bail them out.” When that fails to stop their addiction, they often engage in illegal acts such as embezzlement, fraud or forgery. It is at that point that a compulsive gambler sees self-destruction as the only way out.

The Extent of The Problem

Wisconsin residents are exposed to gaming through state run lottery games, dog racing, Indian and church-run bingo, casinos, bar slot machines, sports betting, the internet, and the stock market. Additionally, they now have opportunities to participate in poker, craps, and roulette in our state as well as off-track betting in every adjacent state (Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois). Because of these opportunities there is no reason to believe that the immunity of Wisconsin residents is lesser or greater than the remainder of the country.


Three main segments of the population are especially vulnerable to compulsive gambling: adolescents, the elderly and the dually addicted. The dually addicted are those people who are recovering from one addiction and are at high risk of developing another addiction. According to the WCPG’s own studies, gambling addiction by college students seems to be on the rise.

Adolescents: Surveys in Minnesota, Washington, Massachusetts and Florida indicate that the rate of compulsive gambling among teenagers is actually higher than the general population rate. This percentage comes directly from two national studies conducted under the auspices of Congressionally mandated “Commissions”. Even though it is illegal for teens to gamble, there is no reason to believe Wisconsin is any different for those who are 15 to 21 years of age. In fact, a 1996 study done in Connecticut schools shows approximately 12 – 14 percent of teens have a gambling problem. The appeal to the young is somewhat understandable; it’s exciting, it involves risk taking and it’s an easy way to defy adult authority.

Additional statistics from the Congressionally mandated national studies revealed that 1.3 percent of the population are compulsive gamblers, while seven percent are at risk of becoming problem gamblers.

The young are also the most proficient in surfing the internet. This new technology is gambling’s newest frontier. While the number changes daily, in 2005 one national study indicated that more than 13 million internet gambling sites were available. As a result teenagers can find gambling opportunities with little or no risk of being caught by local or state authorities and it is much more accessible.

Elderly: A visit to any casino or bingo hall in Wisconsin leaves one with the inescapable conclusion that gambling is very popular with the elderly. Gambling offers an escape from boredom, monotonous routines and isolation often experienced by the country’s aging population. It also gives them hope for financial security, despite the extreme odds against such an eventuality. Widows and widowers also find gambling an appealing escape from the loneliness of being single again, as well as the opportunity to socialize with others in a stimulating environment.


One major dilemma posed by increased gambling is occurring in the workplace. Public and private employers are quickly learning that having a compulsive gambler on the payroll can produce a very unproductive and costly employee. These employees are likely to spend much of their time “handicapping”, planning their next gambling venture, calling a bookie, arranging loans, avoiding creditors, or if they work out of the office, gambling at the nearest gambling venue. They also tend to report late for work, fail to show up for work at all, and/or use company vehicles for trips to gambling facilities.

Case studies also show the compulsive gambler will seek advances on their pay, borrow from coworkers, steal materials for resale, and, if their jobs provide them with the opportunity, engage in embezzlement or other fraud. They also have high rates of depression, insomnia, intestinal disorders, migraine headaches and other stress-related disorders. Employee assistance counselors and human resources administrators have become increasingly aware of these problems in recent years.


“The social costs of compulsive gambling include costs to both individuals and families. In addition, financial institutions incur the costs of dealing with bad debts and unpaid loans. The criminal justice and human service systems must absorb the costs associated with dealing with compulsive gamblers who have committed gambling related crimes and with families experiencing gambling related problems. Finally, employers deal with costs associated with absenteeism and tardiness on the part of distracted employees who give more attention to their gambling than to their work.”1
Wisconsin has seen a substantial increase in gambling related crimes during the past two years.

1Ronald M. Pavalko, Risky Business: America’s Fascination With Gambling
Belmot, CA: Wadsworth, 2000. p. 139

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