Gambling Suicides Have National Impact
Five sensational suicides in Reno, Nevada since mid-May couldn't have come at a worse time for the gambling industry. In a span of about six weeks, three men and one woman have jumped from the top of downtown casino parking garages and one from a casino hotel room. One of the jumpers, the only one of the five with a documented history of mental illness, was seen killing himself one block from the route of the annual Reno Rodeo parade an hour before it began, creating a public relations disaster for the city and the industry. As legislation that would begin a national gambling study remains stalled in Congress, anti-gambling activist Tom Grey plans to promote the study on the CBS news program 60 Minutes<> by discussing the Reno suicides and other problems he says are associated with gambling.
Suicide isn't unusual in northern Nevada's Washoe County, where there are about 70 suicides each year, three times the U.S. average. Although that's higher than the average American county, it isn't unusual compared to other Nevada counties. Nevada has the nation's highest suicide rate. One reason is the number of desperate people who travel to Reno (located in Washoe County) and other Nevada cities before killing themselves. Washoe County Coroner Vernon O. McCarty estimates that from 15 to 20 percent of the suicides his office sees come from outside Washoe County. Also, Nevada counties tend to have more accurate reporting systems than other counties, where suicides are oftentimes reported as accidents, especially in rural areas where county coroners are elected officials. In Washoe County, the coroner is appointed by the county commission.
Most of the suicide cases don't involve gambling, said McCarty, who's been county coroner for 17 years. "We do not see a lot of suicides associated with gambling losses, which is a common public misperception." But, he said the four recent casino suicides did have drug abuse and gambling losses in common.
Rarely do people kill themselves by leaping from buildings. About seventy percent of those who take their own lives do so with firearms, and most of the rest kill themselves by drug overdose. One of the Reno suicide jumpers lost $8,200 gambling before he killed himself. He swallowed nine boxes of Sominex in an attempt to end his life be fore jumping from his hotel room.
Another one of the five recent jumpers had slashed his wrists earlier in the day. He was a heavy drinker and pack-a-day smoker. The man's son said, "Gambling killed my dad long before he killed himself."
In the same period, a woman from England also threatened to jump off the city parking garage in downtown Reno. The incident was apparently not related to gambling, as she told police she was having problems getting proper work permits.
Proponents of a congressional gambling study say that suicide is going to be one of their major rallying cries. Robert Goodman, author of The Luck Business<> (Free Press 1995), uses a study for his book that concludes the rate of suicide among problem gamblers is five to 10 times as high as that of the general population.
"This has happened in other places," said Goodman, "things such as suicides in casino parking lots in Illinois."
Figures and stories similar to Goodman's will be used by opponents like Tom Grey, head of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, in their campaign against the spread of organized gambling. Grey, an ordained Methodist minister, barnstorms the country, rallying his "Gideon's army" against the gambling industry. He spreads his message nationwide by using local grassroots organizations devoted to halting the spread of casino corporations.
"We know gamblers are six times more likely than anyone to commit suicide," said Grey, who is the subject of an upcoming episode of 60 Minutes<>, the CBS news program. "It becomes a way out of a very hidden addiction," he said.
Gambling proponents aren't surprised that Grey plans to discuss suicide. "They certainly have used cases of suicides as propaganda in the past," said Karen Kirschgasser, spokesperson for Nevada Democrat Sen. Richard Bryan, who, along with the rest of Nevada's congressional delegation, opposes the national gambling study. Opponents of the study believe it could result in over-regulation of the industry and higher taxes for casinos. In a letter to Reno City Councilwoman Judy Pruett, Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, who introduced the legislation in Congress, cites "the direct costs associated with gambling including regulatory costs, lost productivity costs, crime control costs, as well as harder-to-price costs such as suicide, family disintegration, and cannibalization of existing businesses (as ) cause for serious concern." New Republican U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has not scheduled a vote on the study, according to Lott spokesperson Susan Irby. It's unclear whether the bill will receive a vote before the scheduled close of the legislative session Oct. 4.
Meanwhile, Harrah's Reno, where four of the five people committed suicide, now posts a security guard on the top level of its parking garage. It seems a PR move more than anything. Casinos can't be expected to stop desperate people who have decided to end their own lives, though critics level the charge that casinos do not do enough to cut off problem gamblers. Proponents counter that a casino should not be held accountable for the actions of irresponsible individuals.
Tom Grey and his league of crusaders, however, don't want to see people with addictive personalities given the chance to gamble. In their eyes, legalized gambling is spreading across the United States like wildfire, and they say it's their moral duty to stomp out all its manifestations, from luxurious casinos to corner market lotteries.
And the recent suicides provide Grey's army with renewed moral certitude and enough political fodder to sustain their jihad against the multi-billion dollar gambling industry.