I cringe when I see "sin taxes" associated with gambling ("Liquor, lotto are COVID escapes," Nov. 22). I understand the intent. Too often we view excessive gambling as a moral weakness. We believe these "problem or compulsive gamblers" lack the willpower to stop and must endure the shameful labels we easily apply.

Most Minnesotans who gamble (78%), do so as entertainment and do not suffer serious negative consequences. However, on behalf of those who struggle, I'm asking Minnesotans to see beyond the "sin."

The impact of a gambling disorder on individuals and their families is devastating. It is a disease of the brain, one with few outward signs. It can destroy relationships as well as bring financial ruin to an entire family who may be completely in the dark until a loved one has gambled away their assets.

As an advocate with Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance (NPGA), I'd like to share the most basic facts about gambling addiction:

Nationwide, 4% of the population lands somewhere on the problem gambling spectrum, with over 1% meeting medical criteria for a gambling disorder. Anyone who has experienced this condition will tell you that being able to "walk away" from an addiction is just not possible. Medical experts agree: Gambling can be a real addiction and one often accompanied by other mental health issues and addictions. It's also the addiction with the highest suicide rate.

Under COVID-19 conditions, many Minnesotans are under financial and emotional duress, whether it's unemployment, inability to pay bills, food insecurity, fear of eviction, isolation from friends and family, dealing with sick family members, personally fighting the illness, and political and social uncertainty; all of which create the perfect storm for chronic stress.

Those vulnerable before COVID-19 may now be more so and likely many more are turning to gambling as a means to escape the pains of our current reality. We know many are turning to online gambling sites, social casino games, and video games with embedded gambling elements. These are unregulated sites, sometimes predatory by design. Some in fact take your money and only provide virtual rewards. The number of players in these unregulated arenas is growing.

COVID-19 has placed huge economic burdens on every state and expanding gambling options may indeed provide new and needed revenue streams. NPGA remains neutral on the legalization of gambling but insists that comprehensive consumer protections be in place and that funds be set aside for prevention, treatment and research.

NPGA benefits from legislative funding through the lottery and charitable gambling. Those funds enable us to provide outreach, training and research across the state. The state has also set up a fund for treatment, administered by the Department of Human Services. Services are currently available through telehealth during COVID-19.

If you or someone you care about is exhibiting signs of problematic gambling, help is available and it works. Call the state helpline at 1-800-333-4673 (HOPE) any time, any day or visit northstarpg.org for more resources and information.

Susan Sheridan Tucker is executive director, Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance.