FARMINGTON — The most casual look at the patrons who frequent the two Navajo casinos shows the majority are residents of the Nation.

Statistics back up this observation, said Raymond Etcitty, general counsel for the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise. Most patrons come from surrounding communities. Fewer are tourists or passersby on the local highways.

Some Navajo patrons cash government or Social Security checks at the casino, then feed the bills into slot machines. The practice is cause for alarm among opponents of the gaming industry.

"A social dilemma is being created, and the amount of money coming back to the Nation, from an economic standpoint, is not being reported," said state Rep. Ray Begaye, D-Shiprock.

Begaye has spoken out against gaming on the reservation since discussions about it began. He also has cautioned about the tribe's poor record of financial accountability and social conditions that could lead residents to seek the get-rich-quick appeal of casinos.

Gaming may be especially devastating on the Navajo Nation, Begaye said. Part of the problem is the schedule of government-issued checks, he said. The appeal and availability of casinos may be too strong to resist for people holding checks at the beginning of the month.

"Health representatives will see this," he said. "What they will see is pretty bleak in terms of addiction, poverty, alcohol abuse ... especially the first of the month when they receive their federal benefits, social service checks."

Approximately 85 percent of adults have gambled at least once in their lifetimes, with 60 percent of adults gambling in any given year, according to data from the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Of those who gamble, 2 to 3 percent are considered problem gamblers, and 1 percent are pathological gamblers, or those who are clearly addicted.

In numbers, that's 2 million U.S. adults who meet criteria for pathological gambling, and 4 million to 6 million who are problem gamblers, or those who do not meet full diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling, but who are experiencing problems because of gambling behavior.

Legal gambling is available in 48 states; Hawaii and Utah are the only exceptions.

Entertainment vs. addiction

Marilyn Lancelot, 80, of Sun City, Ariz., was 60 when she was arrested for activities stemming from a gambling addiction.

Lancelot, author of a self-published memoir, "Gripped by Gambling," was 52 when she first went into a casino. What started as entertainment, however, quickly got out of hand.

"After two years, I had maxed out my credit cards, spent all the money I had," she said. "Then I started to embezzle money from my employer. I gambled compulsively. It was out of hand. I had to have it."

Lancelot, who took $300,000 from her boss, was charged with 77 felonies and sentenced to two years in the Arizona State Prison, in Perryville, Ariz. She was released after 10 months.

Lancelot, who has not entered a casino for 20 years next month, is an advocate for others gripped by the gambling disease.

"If you combine the lights, the sounds, the colors, no clocks, no windows, you're a captive audience once you're in there," she said. "It's pretty hard not to put a coin in the machine because all you hear is the screaming, the hollering when someone wins."

Yet gambling addiction can lead to many social ills, Lancelot said. Recovering gamblers often face obstacles like divorce, alienation, suicidal thoughts, physical health issues and an inability to get or keep a job, she said.

"Slot machines are very addictive, they're mesmerizing, they get their teeth into you," she said. "They let you play faster and faster. It's like going downhill on a roller coaster. You can't stop until you get to the bottom."

Lancelot hit bottom when she was arrested, an occurrence that forced her to change her life and encouraged her to help others plagued with the same problems.

"For some people, it's very difficult to stay clean," she said. "It depends on the kind of bottom you hit. My bottom was pretty powerful and damaging and painful. I was a grandmother. My grandkids watched the police take me away in handcuffs. I lost two homes, my job, all my life savings."

Lancelot does not speak against casinos because they can do a lot of good for communities, tribes and states.

But she estimates that for every person struggling with a gambling addiction, seven other people also are affected.

"It's not to be minimized," she said of gambling. "It is not only damaging to the person, but to society around them."

Social responsibility of gaming

Former Farmington Mayor Bill Standley also spoke out against Indian gaming.

"It will help the chapters, but not the individuals," he said. "When other casinos, including SunRay, started up, the pawn business around here skyrocketed. People were pawning trucks, horse trailers, all kinds of personal objects to pay for gambling."

Standley also cited an increase in domestic violence incidents and other drawbacks that come with gaming.

"It doesn't really improve the economy," he said. "It might offer a few jobs, but it becomes more of a liability."

Yet the gaming industry comes with regulations that require tribes or private enterprises to pay into programs that offer assistance to people who become problem gamblers.

Early studies on the two operating Navajo casinos reveal the average daily bet is less than $25, Etcitty said. Although casinos never have operated on the reservation, they are opening to clientele largely experienced with gaming, he said.

"People are playing penny slots," Etcitty said. "They're just there to kill time. They look at it as a form of entertainment."

A 2006 report by the state Task Force of Compulsive Gambling estimated New Mexico has anywhere from 36,000 to 108,000 problem gamblers.

The money spent to provide treatment to problem gamblers in New Mexico steadily is increasing, according to reports from the New Mexico Council on Problem Gambling. Treatment funding comes from gaming donations that go into an Indigent Care Treatment Fund, a fund based on the assumption that problem gamblers have exhausted their own means to seek help.

The council spent nearly $28,000 on treatment in 2002. Problem gambling kept pace with the booming gaming industry, however, with more than $222,000 spent on treatment in 2009, the council reported.

The council, established in 1998, is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help compulsive gamblers and their families by providing crisis intervention. It operates a 24-hour gambling-specific helpline, at 1-800-gambler.

No official reports on Navajo gaming yet were generated, but informal surveys show most Navajo citizens who frequent the casinos already were going to gaming facilities, Etcitty said. The introduction of casinos on the Navajo Nation simply decreases drive time for patrons and keeps the money local, he said.

Exclusions

The Navajo gaming enterprise trains all employees to watch for the warning signs of problem gamblers.

"Employees are trained twice per year to be able to notice possible gaming problems with individuals," Winter said. "We also train employees to approach individuals and make suggestions to them."

The New Mexico Gaming Control Board officially has excluded 18 people from licensed gaming establishments because they pose a threat to the public interest or licensed gaming activities. Many of the people officially excluded from gaming facilities also face charges of embezzlement, forgery or larceny, according to the New Mexico Gaming Control website.

Gaming enterprises offer a policy for patrons to exclude themselves if they determine gaming is getting out of hand. Excluded people are not allowed into gaming facilities.

"We do have a self-exclusion policy," Etcitty said. "When gaming is no longer entertainment, you can choose to exclude yourself."

Gambling addiction is a mental health issue stemming from an impulse-control problem, according to a definition from Williamsville Wellness, a Virginia-based gambling recovery program. The types of gambling that snare people with this disorder include sports betting, lottery tickets, poker, slot machines and Internet-based gaming.

Casino staff are trained to provide direction to problem gamblers, such as giving them a phone number for a hotline.

Other social issues

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise also is ahead of the curve in addressing some of the other social issues that go hand-in-hand with gaming, Etcitty said.

One such issue is smoking.

Other local casinos field complaints about the constant smoke hovering above the playing floor, but the Navajo casinos will have computer-controlled air circulation systems to reduce smoke and provide a cleaner environment inside, Etcitty said.

Recognizing that as many as 40 percent of patrons may want to smoke while playing, the enterprise footed the bill for a high-tech ventilation system that moves the smoke from the floor up, Etcitty said.

"A smoking ban could cause us to lose 40 percent of revenue, so smoking must be authorized," he said. "But we will be the only casinos in the Southwest to have this ventilation system."

Navajo casinos also offer some of the largest non-smoking areas, Etcitty said.

"We will have our main smoking area, then the rest, the majority, of the casino will be non-smoking," he said. "Fire Rock has the biggest non-smoking ratio that we know of."

Future of gaming

Gaming officials painted a pretty picture of casinos when convincing the Navajo people to approve gaming on the reservation, which includes portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

New Mexico and Arizona allow tribal gaming while Utah does not, so none of the tribe's six proposed gaming facilities will be located in the strip of reservation land in southern Utah.

Time will tell whether the industry with its bells and whistles will yield truth to the promises of infrastructure, economic development and social programs. But already steps are being taken in the right direction, Etcitty said.

"We have 350 employees at Fire Rock," he said. "That's 350 families who now have someone working."

Flowing Water contributes another 62 jobs, bringing the total job creation to more than 400. That will double when the Upper Fruitland casino opens, and increase exponentially once a hotel and other amenities are added.

Large-scale projects such as casinos require better infrastructure than currently available on the sprawling, rural reservation, Etcitty said.

As the tribe adds electricity to casinos, nearby residents can tap into that for a fraction of the cost of running a line all the way from the nearest hub.

"We're increasing the grid," Etcitty said. "We are bringing electricity lines in. When a casino come in, infrastructure comes in."

The two largest casinos in the works, the Upper Fruitland casino and a major resort and casino near Flagstaff, Ariz., call for the addition of wastewater treatment plants, Etcitty said. Those will be the first such treatment plants on the reservation.

Casinos also are expected to jump-start the economy in ways other projects have fallen short, Etcitty said.

Casinos, hotels and restaurants mean more jobs in the hospitality industry, he said. The tribe's higher education institutions already are planning for an influx of interest in food, beverage and hospitality programs.

Traditional industries such as farming and ranching also can expect a boost, Etcitty said. Restaurants that serve traditional Navajo food create a demand for fresh produce and livestock, stimulating the traditional economy to provide a constant supply of locally grown, organic produce.

"Building Navajo casinos means building a sustainable economy," Etcitty said. "A casino is the anchor."

Alysa Landry: alandry@daily-times.com