To date, there have been few in-depth studies of the gambling behavior of Southeast Asian refugee communities. While there have been informal community listening sessions in the Twin Cities at which gambling was discussed, there’s not been a rigorous examination of the degree to which this population gambles. However, thanks to a new research initiative jointly funded by Northstar and the Minnesota Department of Human Services, a large study is underway that will provide a better understanding of the scope of problem gambling behavior, and potentially form the basis for innovative, culture-specific intervention and prevention services for this community.

Preliminary results of the ongoing study, which focuses on the gambling behavior of Minnesota’s Lao community, suggest that gambling addiction is a significant problem. Using the South Oaks Gambling Screen (SOGS) to gauge the likelihood of problem gambling, nearly 18% of the 47 people surveyed (25% of the total planned sample) scored a 5, indicating a “probable” gambling problem. In contrast, less than 5 percent of the overall U.S. population scores a 5 on SOGS.

The study is being conducted by Serena King, Ph.D., L.P., associate professor of Psychology at Hamline University, in conjunction with staff at the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota. “Given cultural differences and the concern that members of the community might not be open to disclosing personal behavior, we didn’t know what to expect,” says Serena. “However, we’ve been getting rich personal narratives and good quantitative data that should be very helpful.”

Findings So Far

Although the study was not complete as of this writing, here are some noteworthy findings to date:

• The prevalence of probable lifetime problem gambling symptoms is nearly six times higher in the Lao community than it is for the rest of the U.S. population.

• More than half of the individuals surveyed earn less than $15,000. “A lot of people in the community are poor and uneducated,” says Sunny Chanthanouvong, executive director of the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota. “That’s why a lot of people want a shortcut to make money.”

• Fifty-four percent of those surveyed think the community can benefit from assistance with gambling behaviors.

• Problem gambling in the Lao community does not appear to exhibit comorbidity (the simultaneous presence of two chronic conditions) with alcohol addiction to the degree it exists in the general population at large. This highlights the fact that problem gambling is different in this community and embedded into the Southeast Asian culture.

• While gambling in the Lao community commonly involves casinos, the lottery and sports, it also frequently takes place in private homes at parties, baby showers, weddings and other events. Betting even takes place at funerals.

• Only 37.8% of those surveyed answered “Yes” to the question of whether they thought treatment could help change gambling behavior. “The perception of psychological intervention with mental health is not as acceptable in this community,” says Selena.

Next Phase — Building a Prevention and Intervention Model

The research study will help support the next phase of the initiative, which is to develop a model that will educate the Lao community about gambling addiction and propose ways to intervene in a culturally acceptable way.

“We plan to start with peer-lead groups stratified according to levels of problem gambling (based on SOGS scores) and levels of readiness to change,” says Serena. Efforts will be made to have individuals monitor their gambling behavior and become more aware of their emotions and feelings about gambling. They will also receive information about high- and low-risk gambling, gambling in moderation, and weighing the cost and benefits of gambling for their families. The intervention will likely include elements of motivational interviewing principles and gambling education.

“We’d like to build a cultural component about the role of luck since that drives a lot of behaviors in many Southeast Asian refugee communities,” says Serena. “We’d like to develop an opportunity to talk and to have gambling conversations driven by methods that work to reduce risk. This community may be less likely to seek out, engage with, and respond to a traditional 12-step approach or psychotherapy.”

“Our hope is that if the intervention model works it can be used for other ethnic communities whose cultural difference makes it harder for them to adopt the support programs that are currently in place for native-born Americans,” says Cathie Perrault, executive director at Northstar.