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Proposal To Lower Nevada's Gambling Age Encounters Skepticism

When you turn 21, you get to do some new things – well, legally, anyway. In Nevada, turning 21 means you can gamble. But Assembly Bill 86 would change that by letting 18 year olds play in the state's casinos. The bill, though, is making some casino executives, and others, wary.

It was introduced by Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler from Minden. The way he sees it, there’s not much sense in keeping adults who can join the military and vote for elected officials out of casinos.

Right now, 22 states allow people under 21 to participate in some form of gambling. 18 of those states, though, make several table games and slots off-limits.

Nevada relies heavily on gaming revenue, but it's among the 28 states with a full ban on gambling before the age of 21. While some may question the maturity of 18-year-olds and their ability to handle a casino environment, Wheeler says generalizing isn’t helping anyone.

"Everyone matures at a different rate, there's no doubt about that," he said. "I have children, I grew up myself, we all have friends that mature at a different rate than we did when we were young. So, it’s an individual thing, and it's hard to put something on 18-year-olds and make it a blanket statement."

Many opponents believe the availability of alcohol could be the biggest issue if the gambling age is lowered. In casinos throughout the state, some gamblers get free drinks as they play.

Bringing minors to the table could mean changes for the drinking age, and that creates more ammo for groups opposed to AB 86. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the country has more than 4,000 underage drinking deaths a year. That cost the economy some $24 billion in 2010.

Carol O’Hare is the Executive Director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. She said the proximity to alcohol in casinos is a big concern, and allowing 18-year-olds into that environment could put them at high risk for early-onset gambling and alcohol addictions.

Still, Wheeler says 18-year-olds are capable of making their own decisions, even when exposed to various vices.

"You make your own mistakes in life," he said. "All of it’s just part of the experience of growing up and not being so overly protected. It seems like our young people now are so overly protected. I think we need to get back to more individual responsibility."

It's not a new argument. When gaming revenue fell in 2009 during the recession, some regulators suggested lowering the gambling age in Nevada. They believed it would expand the customer base by millions in Las Vegas alone.  

Wheeler’s office is still waiting to collect data to show the bill would be economically beneficial by increasing casino revenue. In the meantime, he faces opposition from people like Trevor Quell, a security manager for a large Carson City gaming hall.

"It's a gaming requirement that we offer someone with problem gambling to self-exclude themselves that way," he said. "If someone does have a problem, they can set it right for themselves and try to stop themselves, and I don’t think an 18-year-old would be mature enough to tell if they have a problem with gambling or not."

Right now, Wheeler doesn’t have much faith in AB 86. Even so, he says his advocacy is really more of a statement in support of greater freedom for 18-year-old adults.

"This bill gets the discussion started and gets us looking at numbers, looking at young people, and that’s what I really like about this bill," he said. "Whether it passes or doesn’t pass, the discussion is out there. That’s what we want. That’s our job here."

Assem. Jim Wheeler (R-Minden);  Trevor Quell, security manager

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