Despite gambling in Kentucky being a $2bn industry consisting of opportunities to wager on horse races, historic horseracing machines, a state lottery and charitable gaming, advocates warn the state lacks a sustainable source of funding for treatment and prevention of problem gambling.
Lawmakers acknowledged the existence of problem gambling in a 2003 legislative report titled "Compulsive Gambling In Kentucky", which supported a publicly funded program to address problem gambling.
“Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of that report, and there is still no publicly funded program to address problem and addicted gambling in the state,” said Mike Stone, executive director of the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling (KCPG).
Stone said that statistics indicate “tens of thousands of Kentuckians are already at risk, or have a problem, or have addictive gambling disorder.”
According to the KCPG, there are 64,000 adults in Kentucky that are addicted to gambling, and 165,000 adults that are categorized as problem gamblers. Despite this, Stone said there are only seven certified gambling counselors in Kentucky.
Kentucky is one of nine states that does not provide any funding for problem gambling services. The others are Alaska, Alabama, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana Texas, and Utah.
Only Utah and Hawaii have no legalized gambling activities. As of 2021, the remaining seven states had an average of six types of legalized forms of gambling, including lotteries, tribal casinos and pari-mutuel wagering.
“One reason it has been difficult to get problem gambling support from state legislatures is the shame and stigma surrounding addiction in general and gambling addiction in particular,” Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), said Monday (October 3).
Whyte said the NCPG’s 2021 National Survey on Gambling Attitudes and Gambling Experiences show that many Americans misunderstand problem gambling, viewing it as a moral issue rather than as a medical disorder.
“Seventy-four percent of survey respondents stated that they believe that gambling problems are caused by a lack of willpower. We know that people who develop gambling problems often have a genetic predisposition to addictive behavior.”
Whyte added that a “disproportionate share of Kentucky’s gambling profits come from Kentuckians with gambling problems.”
He urged lawmakers to “devote some of their profits from gambling to protect their citizens who develop gambling problems.”
Stone has lobbied the Kentucky General Assembly to establish problem gambling treatment and prevention funds using a recurring percentage of the current $400m and projected revenue the state receives from legal gambling.
“With expanded gambling opportunity in Kentucky, more people will be closer to increased gambling opportunity,” Stone told the legislature's Interim Joint Committee on Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations on Thursday (September 29).
Several lawmakers expressed support for state funding of problem gambling services during the hearing.
Senate Minority Caucus chairman Reginald Thomas, a Democrat, said he has been supportive of gaming since he began serving in the Senate and sees a need for such a program.
“I do recognize that gambling is addictive, and I’ve had friends who have had problems with it,” he said.
Thomas said he was dismayed that Lexington, which is known for its horse farms, Keeneland racetrack and has a population of 322,200, does not have a single certified gambling counselor.
Republican Senator Donald Douglas agreed there was a need for more certified gambling therapists, but he expressed concern about creating a new funding stream. He added that the public already pays for universities, and more focus is needed on producing counselors.
“I think our taxpayers in the commonwealth are probably getting a little bit tired of having to pay for a lot of things that perhaps they don’t really participate in.” Douglas said.
Whyte said Monday that Kentucky receives significant tax revenues from gambling; therefore, the state government has an “ethical imperative and economic obligation to fund problem gambling prevention and treatment services.”
“The Kentucky legislature has an even greater responsibility to address the social cost of gambling addiction since the government operates a state lottery and directly encourages Kentuckians to gamble, some of whom will develop a severe gambling addiction,” Whyte said.
“Every dollar of government gambling revenue spent to prevent and treat gambling problems saves taxpayers at least two dollars in social costs,” he added.