PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Have the casinos caused a spike in problem gambling?

Consider the case of Ira Johnson. He’s accused of embezzling more than $700,000 from his employer, West Penn Allegheny Health System. Most every penny spent in casinos.

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Two Charleroi cafeteria workers are accused of stealing $94,000 in lunch money to gamble at The Meadows.

Also, Ella Jones, the former manager in Braddock, is serving time for stealing $170,000 from the borough and spending it on slots.

Though gambling existed in many forms before 2007, therapists – who are treating more addicts than ever – say it’s more accessible than ever, round-the-clock at the state’s 13 casinos.

“When you have that many across the state that are open 24/7 it accommodates any person’s lifestyle,” Jody Bechtold, of the University of Pittsburgh, says.

One woman, who does not want to be identified, blames no one but herself for her problem.

“For me, the movement of the games was very exciting, twirling, the sounds were every captivating,” she says.

But she says the casino slot machines greased the skids, helping turn her from a sometime lottery and bingo player into a full-fledged gambling addict.

She lost her life-savings, her house and had to move herself and her children in with her parents.

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“You lose all sense of responsibility, you lose all sense of time, you only become focused on watching those wheels spin,” she said.

For their part, the casinos – like the Rivers – are resistant to the notion that they’ve caused a spike in problem gambling.

They note that only one to three percent of the population is likely to become addicts; and that they try to help those that are.

“I just think we have a fantastic entertainment facility here in the Pittsburgh,” said Craig Clark, of the Rivers Casino. “It’s just part of the population has an issue with problem gambling.”

Right now, 5,000 people have registered on so-called self-exclusion lists – banning themselves from the casinos.

Also, while the number of people seeking treatment from the state for gambling addiction has more than quadrupled – from 42 to 168 this year – the state doesn’t know if that’s because the problem is getting worse or if treatment is more available and better publicized.

Casinos say the benefits far outweigh the concerns – jobs, property tax relief, and here in Pittsburgh they’re helping pay off the bonds on the CONSOL Energy Center.

But only one problem gambler can wreak major havoc and experts says we as a community need to brace ourselves going forward.

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