More Gambling, More State Problems: 'I’m hoping We Can Pause on Expansion & Focus on the Problem Side of It.'


"We’re talking about legalizing something that has a dark side to it. Do we want to go there?”

AUSTIN, Texas (Texas Insider Report) — 
Jim Whelan, a psychology professor who runs The Institute for Gambling Education & Research and the University of Memphis's Gambling Clinic – that's backed financially by the State of Tennessee – says that in the past gamblers seeking treatment for addiction at his clinic were older and almost evenly split by gender. Now, however, there’s been an influx of men ages 25 to 35. 

Two dozen states have active online sports betting, and other states are on the verge of joining them. But in the states that have legalized sports betting, authorities there report that when the presence of wagering and gambling are introduced, a "sort of addiction pandemic" quickly occurs – as does the need for "Addiction Services" and numerous other attendant state-provided and expensive Social Services, which typically skyrocket and become an issue.
“They've pretty quickly got themselves, in a year or two, to where the gambling has created harms in their life,” Whelan said, noting that spikes in problem gambling aren’t unprecedented since they often happen when a new casino opens or a state adds a lottery game.

“So I’m a little reluctant to say that the sky is falling yet, but we do fear this is going to create some sort of addiction pandemic. We don’t know if it is or not.”

Ohio launched its legal sports betting market on January 1st of this year, and immediately its "Addiction Helpline" saw a tripling in call volumes, said Mike Buzzelli, Associate Director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio.

Whelan’s observations for Tennessee reflect similar patterns around the country. Ohio has seen the same trends as occurred in Tennessee:
Younger men – rather than the older – and a mixed-gender cohort of casino bettors.

Additionally, said Buzzelli, people were reaching a crisis or breaking point much sooner after sports betting became legal. 

Previously, Buzzelli said, most "Addiction Helpline" callers report that their gambling had been problematic for 3-to-7 years, but now most bettors who call the helpline say they reached a problematic stage in less than a year.

As a result, questions about whether regulators and sportsbooks are doing enough – or can be successful in fighting to overcome gambling addiction and the negative side effects the industry has had on many of the state's communities – remain to be answered.

Learning From Others

In Ohio, officials have been forced to fund and offer educational programs in the state's schools, as well as to be creative on how they can enforce restrictions on advertising to students. Buzzelli has even said that as more state funding for addiction programs continue to come in from sports betting tax revenue, the state could build partnerships with Ohio colleges to address addiction problems there.

He considers it a benefit that many states legalized online sports gambling before Ohio did. His group has educated social workers and addiction counselors on problem gambling, and trained them to discuss luck and odds using the language of sports betting so they can better reach bettors who need help.

“We were really able to look at what other states did right, and what they did wrong,” he said.

Vermont has Also been Hesitant on Gambling: "Do We Want to Go There?

State Rep. Matthew Birong, a Democrat, said he has been working on sports betting legislation since early 2020. The latest version of his bill has cleared a House Committee and could make it through the legislature this spring.
Since he started working on the legislation several years ago, Birong has seen other states wrestle with how to prevent young people from being aggressively targeted by sportsbooks.
“There was a hesitance towards expanding that style of gambling with a lot of policymakers,” he said.

“Yes, there was money on the table, but the big question was – we’re talking about legalizing something that has a dark side to it. Do we want to go there?”

Under his Vermont bill, 2.5% of overall gambling tax revenue would go to pay for programs to combat gambling addiction. Birong said his bill would use sports betting revenue to publicize the availability of addiction resources provided by the state Department of Mental Health.

For now, the state contracts with an outside helpline.

More Gambling, More Problems

Virginia’s Online Sports Betting Program has been live for more than two years. Legalization brought gamblers out of the shadows, and made betting easier.

State Del. Paul Krizek (right, D-Mt. Vernon,) is one of the lawmakers still focused on the issue.

“We can’t have situations where people are going broke and becoming criminals because they’ve lost all their money. I’m hoping we can take a pause on any more expansion for a while and really start to focus on the problem side of it," he noted recently. 

“We’ve got to be very careful – we need to promote responsible gaming if we’re going to keep at it,” Krizek said.

Of this year's efforts to expand poker and casino gambling in Virginia, Krizek noted:

“By doing that, it increases the numbers of players and the number of people engaged, and it does then increase the number of problem gambling issues – that is something I’m not sure we were really prepared for."
Krizek has been leading an effort in Virginia this year to:
  • Create a new State Gambling Advisory Committee on problem gambling
  • Establish the month of March each year as "Problem Gambling Awareness Month," and
  • Commission a study to determine whether Virginia’s gambling regulatory bodies should be consolidated
The amount of money wagered on sports betting and gambling in Virginia increased by more than 50% from 2021 to 2022 according to the state. Calls to the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling increased by a similar amount during that same period.