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Although the vast majority of Americans enjoy the entertainment option of gambling without experiencing any adverse effects, a small percentage are unable to control their wagering on sporting events, lotteries, casino games, horse or dog racing, Bingo and other gambling activities.
Pathological gambling is the term used by the American Psychiatric Association to describe the clinical disorder characterized by a persistent and recurring failure to resist gambling behavior that is harmful to the individual and/or others. Other more general terms, such as compulsive gambling, problem gambling and disordered gambling, can refer to the wide range of individuals who experience varying degrees of problems but may or may not meet the definition of a medically diagnosable impulse control disorder.

The prevalence of pathological gambling is far lower than drug abuse/dependence (6.2 percent) and alcohol dependence (13.8 percent), according to the 1997 Harvard meta-analysis.

The 1999 NORC study estimated the total social costs of problem and pathological gambling at $5 billion to $6 billion, compared to opponents' earlier claims of $80 billion per year. By contrast, the annual cost to society for alcohol is $166 billion, and the annual cost for heart disease is $125 billion.

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