By some estimates, as many as 15 million Americans play poker online for money. Online gambling is thought to generating at least a $6 billion in profits annually.
According to a May 2009 Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans called gambling "morally acceptable," while 36 percent called it "morally wrong." But there are concerns. In a Pew poll in 2006, 70 percent said they think legalized gambling encourages people to gamble more than they can afford. Six percent said gambling has been a source of problems within their family.
A spokesman for Gamblers Anonymous (who in keeping with the organization's hallmark asked that only his first name, Chuck, be used for this article) said GA has no formal opinion on the effort to legalize Internet gambling, and that they do not comment on public policy issues. But asked whether the proliferation of online gambling sites has swelled the ranks of compulsive gamblers seeking help, Chuck said, "the answer is, unequivocally, yes."
Chuck had no hard data to support this assertion, only anecdotal evidence. "More and more people are coming into the program and telling us they became addicted online."
Shawn Jordon, a former compulsive gambler, cofounded a gambling addiction self-help website in 2006. He says around 1,000 people visit the site every day. Jordon said he has gathered data from all over the world suggesting that gambling addiction is soaring.
Historically, Jordon said, looking at any given community, whether a town with 100,000 citizens or a city of one million, various data has suggested that around 5 percent of a population would be considered "problematic" gamblers, that is, they gamble beyond what would be considered recreational. Of those, Jordon said, an estimated 10 percent would be considered "compulsive" gamblers who can't stop and in many cases rack up enormous debts. In recent years, according to Jordon, that smaller subset of clinically compulsive gamblers has been exploding.
"So in the example of a small town with 100,000 people – instead of there being just 500 compulsive gamblers the number is now closer to 5,000," Jordon said. "That includes people who play lottery tickets, use Indian casino poker machines, go to the race track, you name it," Jordon said. "Once upon a time what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas. Gambling has proliferated to the point where sadly that is no longer the case."
Jordon, who resides in Calgary, says he is not opposed to the legalization of Internet gambling. "There's no way to stop it," he said. "The genie is out of the bottle. All we can do is help people."
In the mid-1990s, Congress created the National Gambling Impact Study Commission which in 1999 issued a final report calling for a ban on Internet Gambling. While the federal Wire Act of 1961 expressly prohibits sports betting and other forms of gambling, peer to peer gambling, such as online poker, fell into a gray area. In 2006, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, a law aimed at discouraging financial institutions from transacting with online gambling operations. The law, subject to numerous delays and postponements, officially took effect June 1.
However, because of the various means of getting around the measure – offshore credit card accounts, prepaid credit cards, to name two examples – the Internet poker industry continues to thrive, said PPA's Pappas.