Jay Faherty's gambling habit began innocently enough, watching a church bingo game from his mother's side at age 12. It ended nearly a decade later with a trail of bad checks and maxed-out credit cards.

Like many gamblers, he was drawn by the lure of easy money."Whether you play 15 minutes or three hours, it's the same adrenaline rush," he says. "But the second you get away from the table, it's gone."

And, like a growing number of compulsive gamblers, Faherty was hooked on betting before he was old enough to buy a drink.

"We have an epidemic in America, a little-noticed epidemic," said Durand Jacobs, a clinical psychologist in Redlands, Calif., and a pioneer in treatment of compulsive gambling.

Experts say compulsive gambling among teens is growing along with the gambling industry in the United States.

Lotteries are operating in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Greyhound tracks have sprung up from Texas to Wisconsin.

And in the past five years alone, casinos have spread from Nevada and New Jersey to 15 additional states.

The amount of money wagered legally in the United States has also grown dramatically - to an estimated $330 billion in 1992, an increase of 162 percent in a decade, according to Gaming & Wagering Business magazine.

While gambling becomes more accepted and accessible, experts say little is being done to warn teens about its hidden perils. Some researchers say kids run a greater risk of getting hooked than adults.

"Some of these kids are going to wind up having disastrous gambling careers, and it's preventable," said Henry Lesieur, chairman of the criminal justice department at Illinois State University. He has spent two decades studying gambling's effects.

Statistics are scarce, but experts say anecdotal evidence is building that more teens are becoming problem gamblers.

Valerie Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, has seen a regular increase in the number of calls from teens since its national hotline started in 1987.

"The percentages are still small, but the point is, five years ago they weren't calling at all," she said.

Jacobs says the rate of problem gambling among youths who gamble is at least 10 percent, twice that of adults.

"We're finding that the very young are far more affected by the changing scene of gambling in America than are the adults," he said. "As you come down the age brackets, we're finding more and more problem gambling among the younger and younger."

Minnesota is a prime example of the growth of legal gambling. In the past three years, the state began a lottery and signed compacts with Indian tribes that opened the way for video poker, slot machines and blackjack.

Today, 16 Las Vegas-style casinos dot the state, and spending on legal gambling has more than doubled - from $1.6 billion in 1990 to $3.4 billion in 1992.

Although gamblers must be 18 years or older to enter most Minnesota casinos, some teens boast about the ease with which their friends have been able to sneak past security guards.

"Just go with a friend who's old enough, and walk in while he's showing his ID to the guard," said one teen who was playing blackjack - and losing - recently at Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing.

Specialists say the constant barrage of casino advertisements has seduced many teens into thinking that gambling is as harmless as a Nintendo game.

Billboards promoting Treasure Island boast of "more ways to play and win." Television ads for Mystic Lake casino in the Minneapolis suburb of Prior Lake tell viewers, "You're a lot luckier than you think."

The Minnesota Twins even had a tie-in with casino gambling last season, promising a chosen few a free turn at Treasure Island's "cash tornado" if the home team won.

And because gambling has all the properties kids love - instant gratification, blood-pumping excitement - some experts believe they're more liable to get into trouble once they start.

"Teens who win just get an enormous ego boost from gambling," Lesieur said. "A teen can hope to work at maybe $4.50 an hour if they're lucky. Here, they gamble and can win $80 on a pulltab. That's big money."

Faherty knows that lure all too well. While attending college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, it drew him regularly to the Fond du Luth Casino, just a few miles from his dormitory.

During his sophomore year, the same year he started supporting himself, live blackjack made its debut at the casino - and his gambling habit spiraled out of control.

"Now I'm thinking, `I can turn $20 into $100,' " he recalled. "It got to the point where I would take an entire paycheck with me and lose it and fall behind on rent. The cards just weren't falling."

There was no catching up. By the summer of 1992, he was broke and constantly lying to his parents.

One fateful weekend, he decided to win some of it back during a road trip with friends.

But he ended up losing so much money at a Hudson, Wis., dog track that his rent check and several others would have bounced if his parents hadn't bailed him out.

"Without their understanding and help, there's no way I would have survived," he said.

Gambling counselors cite common examples of high schools holding mock casino nights to keep students from drinking, and lottery tickets stuffed in youngsters' Christmas stockings.

"Adults don't realize it's any more dangerous than spitting on the sidewalk," said Betty George, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Compulsive Gambling.

A Minnesota study has found that young gamblers are increasingly raising their sights - from sports and other informal betting to lottery playing, scratch tabs and video gambling.

"It's a trend in an uncomfortable direction . . . There's the lure of big-time winning," said Ken Winters, who conducted the gambling study for the University of Minnesota's Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse.

Although prevention and treatment for teens are more widely available in states such as New Jersey, it's often a different story in states less accustomed to widespread gambling.

For example, Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools teach about drugs and alcohol, but neither district has a program in place on gambling. That kind of program will depend on the results of an upcoming statewide survey.

"For us to assume we have a problem is almost putting the cart before the horse," said Jay Ettinger, assistant director for guidance at St. Paul public schools.

Lesieur and others disagree. "We have to treat it like we treat alcohol," he said. "Underage gambling shouldn't be tolerated because of its potential . . . To achieve your self-worth through gambling is extremely risky."

Faherty, now a newspaper reporter in Duluth, hasn't gambled since June, aside from a single lottery ticket he purchased over the summer. He says he's grateful to have stopped before winding up in jail or hurting himself.

But others might not be so lucky.

"My guess," Faherty said, "is that there's a lot more people like me out there. Kids think it's just another acceptable thing to do."