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Asian Americans and Problem Gambling Part II

Fellowship Story Showcase

Asian Americans and Problem Gambling Part II

Picture of Alicia DeLeon-Torres

I was hopeful, yet irritated when I collected information and interviews for Part II and III of the articles.  I was hopeful because of the new programs that would soon become available for problem/pathological gamblers and their families.  I was irritated because, as with many other issues that become "problems", the systems infrastructure was woefully late, understaffed and under-funded.  


Parts II in the series takes an informational look on the impact of gambling establishments, cultural competent marketing tactics, and cultural acceptance. Part III focuses on the emergence of publicly funded problem/patholocal gambling treatment programs and other resources.

Click here to view part one of this series

Click here to view part three of this series


Part II: Are AAPIs at higher risk?
Filipino Press (San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles Counties)
Saturday, October 16, 2010

This article was produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

During a San Diego afterschool club presentation for 11-13 year olds, a group of 82 students of predominantly of Filipino American descent were educated on the signs of problem gambling. Afterwards, students were asked if – based on what they had learned – they thought someone they knew may be in danger of being a problem or pathological gambler. More than 80 percent raised their hands.

San Francisco based NICOS Chinese Health Coalition's survey found that 70 percent of their mostly immigrant Chinese respondents identified gambling as a major issue in their community. Twenty-one percent thought they, themselves, were problem gamblers.

In 1996, Silicon Valley media found that 50 to 80 percent of clientele in area card rooms were Asian American. Nine years later, Casino City Times in Temecula, reported that up to 50 percent of Pechanga Casino patrons were Asian American.

During a 2009 Tet Festival celebration in Los Angeles, vendors observed illegal gambling booths "popping up" after merchandise vendors vacated the space towards the end of the day. The booths attracted large crowds who freely and openly placed bets. In several cases, youth as young as 11 years old were seen participating in the activities.

Today, problem gambling prevention educators have observed that no matter what day of the week it is, or what time of the day it is – a minimum of 30 percent of patrons at a large number of California tribal casino are Asian American. In many cases, the percentage is much higher, at times close to 70 percent.

Are Asian American's at higher risk of becoming problem gamblers? Some experts believe that certain ethnic groups are more prone to problem and pathological gambling due to historical trauma, lingering mental health issues from war or other violence, cultural acceptance, belief systems and/or barriers.

Research finds that, due to trauma of war and associated factors, some Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees may have personality traits that are associated with problem gambling. In one study, nearly 60 percent of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao refugees met the criteria for pathological gambling using the activity as a coping mechanism to compensate for loss of support networks, autonomy in decision making, and sense of fatalism and predetermination. More importantly, while many of their work places and social arenas necessitated some level of English competency, gambling did not.

Cultural beliefs and practices also support acceptance of gambling by some Asian groups including the belief in luck and beginning the New Year (lunar or other) by gambling to "ring in the luck". In the United States, the first day of Lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year) is the second busiest gambling day of the year. Super Bowl Sunday is the first.

In Chinese culture, feng sui and its ability to attract luck and abundance is being used by high profile international casinos. The Las Vegas MGM Grand casino and hotel spent millions of dollars to rebuild the entrance in order to make it more "auspicious" and attractive for Asian customers. The old entrance was the head of a lion where guests would have to walk into the mouth of the lion in order to enter the establishment – and essentially be "eaten". MGM found that Asians found this unlucky and therefore chose other casinos to gamble at. The rebuilt entrance was lion standing to the side guarding the area and protecting the customers inside.

In the Philippines, the body of the deceased may lay in state in the home of the family until burial. During this time, friends and family would gamble night and day for socialization and support – giving the proceeds to the family of the deceased. While this practice has changed upon immigration to the United States, the acceptance of gambling as a support system has not.

Casinos have taken notice of the unique cultural nuances of the very diverse Asian American populations and have become more "culturally competent" than health and social service providers in understanding the needs of their communities – in this case gambling habits and needs. Other than the use of feng sui by some, the gaming industry offer games specific to their customer tastes. One casino even has machines that "speak" an Asian language. Additionally, some aggressively hire staff that speak the same languages as their customers, prepare regional ethnic food, host cultural nights and book popular entertainment acts from home countries in order to entice clients to their venues. While gaming venues insist that this approach is about high quality customer care and service, community problem gambling prevention advocates argue that casinos are using the tobacco industry as a model for targeted marketing by using culture against communities.

On the other hand, many argue that the gambling industry increases the economy, job availability, philanthropic support – as well as attract tourism for the communities surrounding the casinos. Additionally, many casinos have "responsible gambling" policies which offer clientele voluntary exclusion from gambling in their establishment, place 'helpline' signage in strategic areas such as over ATMs) and provide educational materials to those seeking information on problem gambling. Pala and Viejas casinos take it a step further by training their staff to recognize the signs of problem gambling in their clientele, thus placing them on an involuntary exclusion list - meaning that those gamblers would be banned from further gambling at the casino.

Most people who gamble do so socially and responsibly, easily limiting the amount of time and money expended. However, approximately 1 percent of all gamblers are deemed to be problem or pathological gamblers. For those seeking assistance, especially in an Asian language or dialect, options are rare. Help is on the horizon – and in many languages.

In the next issue: warning signs for problem and pathological gambling, affordable treatment options and California State funded programs for those seeking help.