Last month the House Financial Services Committee rejected a bill co-sponsored by Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) that would have blocked Treasury Department regulations aimed at preventing online gambling. Speaking against the bill, Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus, the committee's ranking Republican, explained that the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), the law that requires the regulations, is all about saving the youth of America from a potentially lethal addiction. "McGill University found that one-third of college students who gamble on the Internet ultimately attempted suicide," he averred. He added, "That is why the rate of suicide on our college campuses has doubled in the past 10 years."
In a belated response to Bachus' startling claim, the Safe and Secure Internet Gambling Initiative, an industry group, cites McGill University gambling and addiction researcher Jeffrey L. Derevensky, who says:
This assertion, which is reportedly based upon our empirical research, is not predicated upon any factual evidence. None of the studies conducted with adolescents or college students, to the best of my knowledge, have looked at a connection between Internet wagering and suicide attempts.
In a June 25 press release, Bachus revised his claim, saying, "A study by McGill University found that nearly one-third of teenage compulsive gamblers attempted suicide" (emphasis added). That sounds a little more plausible, depending on how compulsive gambling is defined. But according to Derevensky, Bachus is still wrong to cite McGill research in support of his assertion. In any case, given that only 7 percent or so of online bettors qualify as "problem gamblers" (according to a 2007 survey by the British Gambling Commission), throwing everyone who has ever gambled online into that category is a pretty big mistake. Then, too, while Bachus said suicides on college campuses have doubled in the last decade, the CDC says suicides among 15-to-24-year-olds fell by 28 percent between 1990 and 2003, then rose by 8 percent in 2004 before falling by 3 percent in 2005, the latest year for which data are available (PDF).
Addendum: Several commenters wondered whether Bachus is conniving or clueless. Last summer, after Radley Balko testified at a hearing on Internet gambling before Frank's committee, he described an exchange with Bachus that supports the latter interpretation.