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Florida Legislators Ponder Making State a "Tourist Destination for Gaming":
Allow 18-year-olds to Play Blackjack or Slots
By Josh Hafenbrack, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 26, 2009 --TALLAHASSEE -- At 18, Floridians can vote, join the armed forces or buy a pack of cigarettes.

Should they be able to play blackjack or slots?

The state Senate on Wednesday advanced a far-reaching gambling package that would turn Seminole resorts, including the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, into full casinos with craps, roulette, blackjack and no-limit poker. And South Florida racetracks would, for the first time, be authorized to operate blackjack tables.

Tucked into the lengthy package is an easy-to-overlook provision that would create a uniform, 18-year-old minimum to play the games.

Under current law, Florida's gambling age is a mishmash. At 18, you can bet on greyhounds and horses or play poker. But the age is 21 for slots, blackjack and baccarat, so-called Class III games seen in a Vegas casino.

"We wanted it to be uniform all the way across," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee that approved the gambling package Wednesday. "We felt that 18 was a good age."

Among the college crowd, gambling has grown in popularity due to televised, high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em poker tournaments and the proliferation of online gambling, experts say.

College students are also four times more likely than other adults to exhibit signs of problem gambling, according to a study released this week by the University of South Florida. And students with gambling addictions have lower grades than their peers and are more likely to go into debt, the study said.

By lowering the gambling age, "you're talking about opening up all kinds of gambling to the young, to the highest-risk gambling group," said Pat Fowler, executive director of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling.

She called problem gambling among the 18-to-24 age bracket one of the oft-ignored social costs of gambling expansion. "The majority of them don't have a real grip on finances and a budget," she said.

The gambling age is among an array of issues of disagreement between Republican leaders in the Senate and House.

While the Senate wants to turn Florida into a "tourist destination for gaming," as Jones put it before Wednesday's vote, the House is pushing legislation to curb card games and slots. The House proposal, slated for its first vote next week, would shut down blackjack tables altogether and keep the gambling age at 21 for slots.

"I can see both sides," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D- Greenacres. "I think 18-year-olds are more mature than some adults give them credit for. But obviously, we don't want them to bet their college tuition on blackjack and roulette."

The minimum age for casino betting is 21 in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J. Other states are split, with about half putting the minimum at 18 and the rest at 21.

Racetrack owners at two Broward facilities said they are uneasy about lowering the age to 18, especially because most facilities serve alcohol in gambling areas.

"My daughter is 18; I can't picture her playing blackjack. Even playing a slot machine, to be honest with you," said Dan Adkins, who runs Mardi Gras Gaming in Hallandale Beach. "She's barely out of high school. I think 21 is a better choice."

Josh Hafenbrack can be reached at jhafenbrack@sun-sentinel.com or at 850-224-6214.

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To see more of the Sun Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sun-sentinel.com/.

Copyright (c) 2009, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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