Gambling Just as Fast as We Can

July 12, 2006

A UConn study says that casinos are an obsession among the state’s Asian refugee community

by Patrick Rucker – October 2, 2003


Dr. Nancy Petry’s controversial study of gambling among Connecticut’s Southeast Asian refugees began with a hunch. Certainly gambling is a popular pastime within that community. That much would seem plain to anyone who watched the crowds buzzing around the gaming tables and slot machines at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods.But Petry, a distinguished UConn psychology professor and a leading researcher on gambling patterns, sought more than anecdotes. What she found was astounding.

Of the 96 Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians who took part in a survey of their betting habits, about 59 percent were found to be pathological gamblers. That’s nearly 30 times the pathological gambling rate of the general adult population of North America — about 2 percent.

“We’d heard stories about problem gambling among Asians — parents leaving kids in the parking lots, the story of an Asian gambler who struck and killed someone while racing from one casino to the other,” says Chris Armentano, director of Problem Gambling Service at the state Department of Mental Health and a co-author of the study. “But this was the biggest rate of problem gambling that I had ever seen.”

As one of the few studies to quantify the prevalence of problem gambling among Southeast Asian refugees, Petry’s work has been welcomed by Armentano and others who treat gambling addictions. But for the social workers serving the Southeast Asian community profiled in the study, feelings are more ambivalent.

While acknowledging that Petry’s study highlights a very damaging problem, many say its methods were flawed, its results inflated and its conclusions unfair.

Like most scholarly papers of its kind, Petry’s study, Gambling Participation and Problem Gambling Among South East Asian Refugees to the United States, is long on observations and short on conclusions.

Still, the last paragraph of the seven-page study which was featured in the August issue of Psychological Services, notes that “many members of South East Asian community centers experienced physical torture in their home countries.”

“Gambling,” the report continues, “may have a unique draw for persons who have experienced severe and persistent abuse.”

Some Southeast Asian leaders say it is wrong to speculate that trauma drives Southeast Asian refugees to gamble. Ironically, some of these same skeptics encouraged Petry’s research and provided her study subjects. One even appears as the paper’s co-author.

As controversy swirls, many are still trying to determine the true value of the report’s findings and what it has to teach about the phenomenon of problem gambling.

The anvy Kuoch began her life as a refugee activist not long after she escaped Cambodia and the Communist regime of the Khmer Rouge whose genocidal rule left as many as 1.5 million Cambodians dead.

In 1982, Kuoch founded the Khmer Health Advocates with the help of three American nurses who had served Cambodian refugees in Thailand. An afternoon visitor to Kuoch’s West Hartford home and office is likely to find the halls filled with the aromatic fragrance of traditional Cambodian cooking.

Over the past 20 years Khmer Health Advocates — the only Cambodian American health organization in the United States — has treated more than 1,500 torture survivors and their families.

Many of Petry’s study participants were drawn from Kuoch’s clients and Kuoch is named as one the report’s authors.

Kuoch says she was glad to cooperate. A study that quantified problem gambling among Southeast Asians might give definite form to the problem and lead the way to further study and specialized treatment.

Taken at its face, the report certainly indicates that Connecticut’s Southeast Asian refugees take an undue interest in gambling. Still, Kuoch says that she is dissatisfied. The report is flawed, she says, because it is based on too narrow a sample.

“The study is not accurate,” she says. “It only draws from people who went for help at social service centers. From that it does a lot of assuming.”

A more telling result would have been based on surveys collected from a cross-section of Southeast Asian refugees.

At least part of Kuoch’s objection seems to be the conclusion that Cambodians had the most severe problem with compulsive gambling.

“The study assumes in the summary that this is a culture [of gambling]. That is not fair to this culture. It’s not a cultural study.”

Cambodians in the study were found to wager more frequently and spend more money on an average than either Laotians or Vietnamese. They were also found to wager more frequently on a number of games — slots, horse racing, dice — than the other two groups.

Although Kuoch was reluctant to admit it, gambling is a phenomenon indigenous to many Southeast Asian cultures. People who reach the United States may not be accustomed to the garish glamour of American gambling but they know something of its form.

The city of Poipet, Cambodia on the Thai border is an upscale gambling mecca of the region. Quy Tran, a leader of the Vietnamese community in Connecticut, explains how Vietnamese children are raised on gambling bloodsports like fish, cricket and cock fighting.

“I think that the 60 percent compulsive gambling is unbelievable,” says Tran, vice president of the Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Association and a loan agent for People’s Bank in Waterbury, speaking of the Petry study. “Frankly I would be surprised if it was anything above 10 percent in the general refugee population.”

Tran, who calls himself an occasional casino patron, arrived in the United States as one of thousands of “boat people” fleeing Vietnam after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. He also faults the study sample.

“Such a study should be random,” Tran says. “Most people who go to a community center already need help.”

Gambling — particularly casino gambling — is a problem, Tran says but it is not simply a response to trauma. Anyone who knows the life of estrangement a Southeast Asian refugee can face easily sees the casino’s unique appeal.

“Language is a big problem,” Tran says. “How do you socialize, go to a singles bar speaking broken English? But you don’t need much English at the casinos.”

There are few recreational outlets that hold any appeal for Southeast Asians, Tran continues, so they find diversions at the casinos.

Maybe the strongest lure of the casinos, Tran says, is cultural.

“For Asians, this is a victimless thrill,” he explains. “That is very sought after. You did not hurt anybody, you just had some excitement.”

The easy-come, easy-go spirit of the casinos also has a ring for many Asians, Tran says. “When you’re used to arranged marriages, following your father’s career, you get a sense of fatalism and predetermination. You don’t make your destiny, you fulfill it. If you are destined to be rich, you’ll get rich at the casinos. If you’re destined to be poor, it can happen there, too. The story of your life is already written. You just fulfill it.”

The report concedes that its method has “some weaknesses” such as its relying on social workers to provide study subjects. “We did not use random sampling procedures,” it allows, “and there may have been some response bias.”

Still, Petry says that the report is valuable and insists that there is some evidence that trauma is a contributing factor to the onset of pathological gambling.

Petry says she recently completed a further study examining the occurrences of childhood abuse among pathological gamblers within the general population. The study finds that a high proportion of gamblers had a history of childhood trauma and abuse.

Yes, Petry says, there is a constellation of factors that contribute to pathological gambling and trauma is just one. But what is beyond doubt, the researcher says, is that gambling is prevalent in the Southeast Asian refugee. The only ones who benefit from that are the casinos.

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