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In this Jan. 31, 2014 photo, a computer screen in Atlantic City, N.J., shows a game of Pai Gow underway on a gambling website. / Wayne Parry, AP

CHERRY HILL, N.J. -- It was 1978 when Charles "C.P." Mirarchi first walked into Resorts International Casino in Atlantic City.

"I was like a kid in a candy store," recalls Mirarchi, a compulsive gambler turned counselor at a Collingswood rehab center.

Mirarchi's story is like many cautionary tales heard at Gamblers Anonymous meetings around the state. He was a successful lawyer and a pillar in his community, but he craved the craps table and the rush of a royal flush.

Mirarchi eventually steered clear of casinos to curb his addiction. But he fears that will be almost impossible for a new generation of gambling addicts in New Jersey, who can now place bets on their cellphones.

"The access scares me," Mirarchi says. "I had a guy come in after a phone call because he was playing poker for four days straight on his phone.

"I told him to throw his phone away."

According to Executive Director Donald Weinbaum, the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling has seen an increased number of calls to its toll-free help line since the state's online gambling law took effect in November.

"We have gotten a mix of calls from people who have relapsed and gotten in trouble by the easy access, and calls from people who are new to gambling and the speed of play," Weinbaum says.

"The round-the-clock access has gotten them into trouble in a rather short period of time."

According to Weinbaum, 70 percent to 80 percent of people in New Jersey gamble, and 2 percent to 5 percent of them - or about 350,000 people - develop addiction problems.

The rate is twice as high for young adults, with 4 percent to 8 percent of them showing signs of compulsive gambling.

Mirarchi predicts the addiction numbers will double with the additional temptations of online play.

"Gambling addiction today is like drugs in the late '60s and early '70s," he contends. And online play caters to a younger crowd.

"It is so easy for a teenager to find out their parents' account information and place a few bets online. That's how it starts."

Organizations such as the Council on Compulsive Gambling, the state lottery and the Department of Human Services are spreading the word that help is available.

"Compulsive gambling, like drug and alcohol addiction, can be successfully treated," said Lynn Kovich, state assistant commissioner of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

New Jersey is the third state - after Delaware and Nevada - to authorize Internet gambling. California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Texas hope to follow suit.

While the dangers of addiction exist, Republicans and Democrats alike agree the funds from online play could aid New Jersey's ailing casino industry. State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney has said Internet gaming will be a "crucial boost" to Atlantic City.

"The economic benefits to the region will mean additional revenue, additional jobs, and additional growth," he said in a statement. "It cannot be stressed enough how important it was that New Jersey be ahead of the curve on Internet gaming."

Gov. Chris Christie said he signed the online gaming bill after adding a few safeguards, including increasing funds for programs that treat compulsive gambling.

Christie also bumped up the tax rate on casinos' online winnings from 10 percent to 15 percent.

"I am confident that we are offering a responsible yet exciting option that will make Atlantic City more competitive while also bringing financial benefits to New Jersey as a whole," he said in a statement after signing the bill.

About 2.5 percent of New Jersey gamblers have played online at Atlantic City casino websites since the law took effect Nov. 26, according to the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton College.

The institute predicted those numbers could triple in 2014, according to a poll released Jan. 30.

"These numbers are promising for Atlantic City," said Israel Posner, director of the institute.

"Interest in online gambling is growing and should continue to grow once marketing efforts and promotions take off."

The 16 online sites had total earnings of $10.3 million in February, up slightly from $9.5 million in January.

At that rate, Internet gambling would bring in more than $120 million for the year - far less than the $200 million to $300 million many analysts predicted.

Many casino officials believe smartphones and tablet devices will account for more than 20 percent of the casino's Internet gambling revenue this year, and more than 50 percent within three years.

Tropicana Atlantic City Casino & Resort launched its mobile app, Tropicana.AC, last month. The mobile expansion allows gamblers to play both slots and table games on their iPhone or iPad "at home or on the go."

Officials from Tropicana said players have the ability to limit deposits, spending and session times. Players also can suspend or close their accounts or voluntarily exclude themselves from the site.

Gamblers also can visit the state Division of Gaming Enforcement to enter the self-exclusion program. According to Weinbaum, a one- to five-year exclusion can be submitted online, but a lifetime ban must be done in person.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Online gambling spurs addiction fears

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