U.S. Sports Betting's Impact On Problem Gambling Rates Unknown

March 2, 2022
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The U.S. has experienced a surge in legal sports betting but at this point nobody knows how this surge is affecting the rates of problem gamblers.

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The U.S. has experienced a surge in legal sports betting but at this point nobody knows how this surge is affecting the rates of problem gamblers.

“In the U.S., there are 320m people across 50 states,” Paul Buck, Epic Risk Management CEO said. “There is a unique opportunity to be the largest and most successful gambling industry in the world but also the safest.”

However, Buck said, that will take a collaborative stakeholder approach never seen before between politics, media, operators and health officials.

“This is a public health issue,” Buck told VIXIO GamblingCompliance. “The reality is that there seems to be a scrimmage for sponsorships, short-term profit and market share. This is short-sighted in the medium- to long-term and will generate harm in the short- to medium-term.”

Buck added that it is hard to conclude that problem gambling rates will have risen significantly but the data shared is neither robust nor accurate, in his opinion.

“I strongly believe that we are significantly underestimating the problem gambling rates in Europe,” he added.

Some 2m U.S. adults, or 1 percent of the population, are estimated to meet the criteria for severe gambling problems each year, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG).

Another 4m to 6m, or 2 percent or 3 percent of the population, would be considered to have mild or moderate gambling problems; that is, they do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for gambling addiction but meet one or more of the criteria and are experiencing problems due to their gambling behavior.

The NCPG noted that research also indicates that most adults who choose to gamble can do it responsibly.

Retail and online sports betting has been on a continued growth pattern since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal ban paving the way for its legalization in states beyond Nevada. Currently, 32 states and the District of Columbia offer legal sports betting.

“We have seen a significant increase in the number of calls for help to problem gambling helplines across the nation,” said Brianne Doura-Schawohl, founder and CEO of Doura-Schawohl Consulting LLC.

“Within a matter of months states have been seeing anywhere from a 30 to 50 percent increase in call volumes, many of those callers being young males struggling with their relationship to sports-betting products, much of which is being engaged with via their mobile phones.”

Doura-Schawohl told VIXIO GamblingCompliance that with nine states still not committing any funding or services for problem gambling and many states still woefully under-funding support, "this means many people aren't getting the help and support that they need and deserve."

Buck said there are some lessons the U.S. can learn from Europe’s experience with legalizing mobile sports betting.

“There are some advantages of the US comparing to Europe, and lots of learnings, but it is also a very different starting point,” he said. “The unregulated ‘black market’ in the U.S. is much larger and the shift is very much to regulated gambling state-by-state.”

Europe has seen a big shift over the last ten to 12 years as gambling has gone from land-based gambling to remote gambling, he said.

“There has also been a huge change in products from gambling in cash on greyhounds and horses to multiple markets on every event and the introduction of much more addictive casino and slots games. The big mistake that operators have made is that they haven’t self-regulated well.”

Buck admitted that too many mistakes have been made, which has led to significant gambling-related harm.

“This poor self-regulation has led to harm which has led to public, political and media scrutiny and pressure,” Buck added. “That has inevitably led to greater regulation starting to happen. In the UK for instance, we are now undertaking the most detailed Gambling Act Review in nearly 20 years.”

When asked what needs to be done to create a more adequate treatment system, Buck admitted it was a complex issue but in the short term there needs to be adequate and well-invested research, prevention and treatment.

“The evidence bank is small in the U.S. and research programmes should be heavily invested in by independent academic researchers and institutions,” he said. “Prevention is key.”

“Prevention is not just education; it’s also legislation, regulation, operator responsibility ... media tone and much more,” he added.

“An adequate system must begin with comprehensive policies,” Doura-Schawohl said. “For years, we've been advocating that expanded gambling legislation and regulations always included considerations for problem gambling. In so many jurisdictions it's simply not the case.”

A robust and comprehensive problem gambling system, she said, must explicitly include considerations for the research, prevention and recovery from gambling addiction, with the funding protected.

Then there is treatment.

Although prevention is key, Buck said there will be people who need clinical treatment and there needs to be a fit-for-purpose pathway of support from a nationwide helpline to teletherapy to land-based clinical therapy.

“The U.S. has got a long way to go in all aspects as we talk now in February 2022,” Buck said.

Funding of that adequate treatment is still an issue, however.

“This is a big issue of debate throughout Europe,” Buck told VIXIO GamblingCompliance. “In the UK for instance there is a voluntary levy paid by the operators to a select number of providers who have passed the criteria.”

Although this has its critics, Buck said, it does mean that meaningful work is being done across research, prevention and treatment “even if the figures being allocated are still woefully short of where they need to be.”

“There are also question marks in why the large bulk goes to one commissioning body with little benefit," he said.

"In my opinion, there needs to be a mandatory levy that a certain percentage of either gross gaming revenue or profit goes to an independent commissioning body who administers it to the most effective providers to enable to build a real and effective infrastructure of harm prevention and treatment.”

Buck said it is important that there is transparency and that every cent and dollar goes to problem gambling services and not diverted to other projects.

“Right now, very few states are commissioning dollars on licensing and those that do are woefully short in amounts of dollars allocated. The dollars are needed now, there is a ticking time bomb of harm arriving.”

See also: Responsible Gambling

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