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Gambling addiction in Minnesota's Lao community is mostly hidden

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A slot machine is seen in Grand Casino Hinckley in Hinckley, Minn.
A slot machine is seen in Grand Casino Hinckley in Hinckley, Minn.
Michel Curi via Flickr

Gambling is a part of social life in Laotian culture, but not many talk about what to do when it becomes addictive.

“Gambling is part of our culture, part of our family, we grow up from that. And we bring it here, to the United States,” said Sunny Chanthanouvong, executive director of the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota.

New research from Hamline University may help kickstart the conversation on gambling in Southeast Asian communities locally. Serena King, a psychology professor at the private university, presented her findings at a conference on gambling and addiction in Minnesotan immigrant and refugee communities Wednesday.

In partnership with the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota, King surveyed 200 middle-aged Laotian refugees and immigrants about their relationship with gambling. She said that 25 percent of survey participants had diagnosable problems with gambling. On average, 1 to 5 percent of the U.S. population has a gambling addiction, King said.

“We do see a very substantial impact around gambling-related harms in this community, and maybe how we define problem gambling should be different for certain cultures. We really don't know at this point because there’s so little research data,” King said. “But what we do know is this is raising enough concern that we should be exploring this more deeply.”

Research on the topic is difficult for a variety of reasons, like language barriers and community mistrust, King said.

Chanthanouvong said gambling in Minnesota is more convenient and accessible than it was in Laos. While gamblers would have to go to the city, “here it’s available in every corner of the neighborhood,” he said.

And Chanthanouvong added, the casinos in Laos close in the evening, "But in here, you can go 24 hours. It's very more available and accessible for us."

Panelists at the Hamline conference said understanding gambing addiction in minority communities will require more data.

“The treatment modalities for addictions that we have in this country were, by and large, developed for white, male baby boomers,” said Don Feeney, president of the Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance.

The Lao Assistance Center will start having community conversations about gambling in moderation, Chanthanouvong said.

But a straight prohibition is unlikely.

"Really we need to think of this more as a culturally embedded behavior rather than something that is necessarily problematic, even though there are gambling-related harms,” King said.