NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The states that have legalized sports betting are reporting record levels in betting and revenue, but with that growth come questions about gambling addiction and whether regulators and sports betting are doing enough to combat it.
Two dozen states have active online sportsbooks, and other states are on the verge of joining them. As legalized gambling spreads, state legislatures, regulators, addiction experts, sports bettors and sports leagues say they are working to combat gambling addiction.
Jim Whelan, a psychology professor who directs the Institute for Gambling Education and Research and the University of Memphis Gambling Clinic, which is supported by the state of Tennessee, said that historically, gamblers seeking addiction treatment at his clinic are older and almost evenly distributed divided were sex.
Now there is an influx of men aged 25-35.
“They’ve gotten pretty quickly in a year or two where gambling has done harm in their lives,” Whelan said. He said spikes in problem gambling are not unprecedented, as they often occur when a new casino opens or a state adds a lottery game, “so I’m a little hesitant to say the sky is already falling. We fear that this will lead to some kind of addiction pandemic. We don’t know if it is or not.”
Whelan’s observations in Tennessee reflect similar patterns across the country.
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Ohio launched its legal sports betting market on January 1st. Call volume to his addiction hotline immediately tripled, said Mike Buzzelli, associate director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio.
The state saw the same trends as Tennessee: Younger men instead of the older, mixed-sex cohort of casino bettors. Also, he said, people were reaching the breaking point earlier than before sports betting was legalized.
Previously, Buzzelli said, most callers reported their gambling had been problematic for three to seven years, but now most bettors who call the hotline say they’ve reached a problematic stage in less than a year.
Players often seek treatment when they realize they are in financial distress or because a loved one has told them to get help, Whelan said.
So far, according to Whelan and other experts, advisors are finding they can help younger players by using the proven behavioral strategies they’ve used with long-time problem gamblers. In addition, some states and sportsbooks allow players to put themselves on a “self-exclusion” list, preventing them from gambling for a period of time.
learn from others
In Ohio, officials offer educational programs in schools and enforce advertising restrictions on students. Buzzelli said the state could develop partnerships with Ohio colleges as more funding for addiction programs comes in from sports betting tax revenues.
He thinks it’s an advantage that many states legalized online sports betting before Ohio did.
“It took us a little longer, but that’s because we decided to really prepare for it,” said Buzzelli. His group has trained social workers and addiction counselors on problem gambling and trained them to discuss luck and odds in sports betting language so they can better reach bettors who need help.
“We could really see what [other states] right and what they did wrong and working with the legislature,” he said.
Vermont has also moved more slowly. State Assemblyman Matthew Birong, a Democrat, said he has been working on sports betting legislation since early 2020. The latest version of his bill has been approved by a House committee and could make it through the Legislature this spring. Since he began working on the legislation a few years ago, Birong has seen other states struggle with how to prevent young people from being aggressively targeted by sports betting.
“Many policymakers have been reluctant to expand this style of play,” he said. “Yes, money was on the table, but the big question was, are we talking about legalizing something that has a dark side. Do we want to go there?
Restrictions in Vermont’s legislature include restrictions on marketing to young people and accepting wagers at some collegiate sporting events, and a ban on lending to bettors.
Matt Holt is Vice Chairman of the Fantasy Sports and Gaming Association and Founder and CEO of US Integrity, which contracts with sportsbooks, regulators and sports leagues to help them identify suspicious gambling activity, referee call anomalies or misuse of inside information. Holt said some states rushed into launching their sports betting programs because they were desperate for revenue in the confusing early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everybody was like, ‘Legalize, launch, learn,'” Holt said. “We did the first two. Now we learn. I think the industry as a whole has embraced the fact that there are likely to be some gaps on the integrity and responsible gaming side to fill.”
Holt believes US Integrity’s tracking technology could be used to identify problem gambling earlier and streamline self-exclusion lists. He added that legalizing states generally have more robust regulatory frameworks. Regulators and operators learn side by side, he said.
“Everyone is starting to implement these now,” he said. “I think if we come back in 12 months we’ll see how successful it is.”
Under Vermont statute, 2.5% (and no less than $250,000) of total gambling tax revenue would go toward gambling addiction programs. A few other states also reserve some gambling revenue for treatment or prevention, including Tennessee (5%) and Virginia (2.5%).
Birong said his bill would use sports betting revenue to publicize the availability of addictive drugs provided by the state’s Department of Mental Health. For the time being, the state is signing contracts with an external helpline.
More gambling, more problems
Since launching in November 2020, Tennessee’s sports betting industry has grown rapidly.
In the first month of legal gambling, bettors placed $131.44 million in bets, generating $2.36 million in tax revenue for the state. In January 2023, the most recent month for which data is available, that number rose to $410.77 million in wagering and $7.27 million in tax revenue.
In fiscal year 2023, $1.2 million was allocated to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to help combat gambling addiction. Thanks to increased betting revenue, the proposed fiscal year 2024 budget nearly doubles that amount to $2.3 million, according to department spokesman Matthew Parriott.
A portion of these funds supports the Tennessee REDLINE, a hotline for people with gambling problems. And while Parriott notes that the hotline has seen a “significant increase” in calls since legalization, the “vast majority” of gambling calls are from people seeking the latest lottery numbers or gambling app help, rather than treatment , a phenomenon noted in other states.
That’s one of the reasons why spikes in hotline calls are a “fairly poor predictor of gambling addiction,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Tennessee’s gaming revenues also support addiction research and treatment programs at the University of Memphis and East Tennessee State University.
Virginia’s online sports betting program has been active for more than two years. State Del. Paul Krizek, a Democrat, is one of the lawmakers still focused on the issue. He led this year’s efforts to establish a new state advisory committee on problem gambling, establish March as problem gambling awareness month, and commission a study to determine whether Virginia’s gambling regulators should be consolidated.
“I hope we can take a break from further expansion and really focus on the problem side,” Krizek said, citing recent efforts to expand poker and casino gaming in the state.
Legalization has pulled gamblers out of the shadows and made betting easier and safer, he said, “but by doing so it increases the number of players and the number of people engaged, and it then increases the number of problematic gambling problems, and that’s me.” not sure if we were really prepared for that.”
The amount of money wagered on sports in Virginia increased more than 50% from 2021 to 2022, according to state data. Calls to the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling increased by a similar amount over the same period.
“We need to encourage responsible gaming if we’re going to stick with it,” Krizek said. “We cannot have situations where people go broke and become criminals because they lost all their money. We have to be very careful.”