By Jim Maney

If it hasn’t happened in your home already, expect the topic of gambling in this state to become a household topic across many New York homes very shortly. It’s no secret that Albany is interested in a constitutional amendment that would legalize casino expansion throughout the state. If this passes our Legislature, the future of casinos in New York comes down to you, me and every other New York voter.

There are those who believe this is what the state needs to balance budgets and continue an influx of tourism. Likewise, others are condemning its presence and questioning the moral compass associated with casino expansion.

But there is a third element to this discussion that is unfortunately overlooked: Problem gambling. Think that this is a non-issue? Think again; approximately 600,000 adults in New York (and roughly 80,000-plus in Western New York) experience problem gambling and may be in need of treatment services. Additionally, a report from the United Kingdom suggests that problem gamblers and alcoholics share an eerily similar genetic makeup. Even with obvious similarities, it’s fascinating how society handles each issue differently.

Living with a problem gambler is an equally high-risk scenario. Those who habitually engage in games, slots and more leave their dependents and counterparts behind. When a child can rely only on a problem gambler (or alcoholic) for sustenance, it’s easy to see how supermarket visits lessen and mortgage payments disappear.

Our organization’s focus is not on whether casinos should expand; we are proud of our neutral stance on gambling. Expansion is up to our political leaders and our voters. The conversation we like to have, the conversation our state needs to have, is on how many New Yorkers are experiencing problem gambling today and cannot get rehabilitation services where they live, despite the devastating effects on their families, co-workers and even their communities. Problem gambling is the third and vital element to our state’s gambling conversations.

I can’t definitively say whether this bill will pass both our State Legislature and popular vote in November. One can only speculate on what will happen between now and voting day. But, what can (and should) be implemented regardless of casino expansion are substantial, readily accessible services that give problem gamblers and their families the help they need. Problem gambling education, awareness, prevention, treatment and recovery services are needed statewide.

So, whether or not you think casinos are a step in the right or wrong direction for New York’s future, consider the vital third element, problem gambling, and the need for services to help those suffering.

Jim Maney is executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling.