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Are we doing enough to help problem gamblers?

Published: October 1, 2018

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, a federal statute that limited regulated sports betting to primarily Nevada for 26 years.

Since the ruling, four additional states — Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey and West Virginia — have started taking bets, with Pennsylvania and Rhode Island expected to be among the next wave of states to open sportsbooks. Within a few years, experts believe more than 25 states will be offering legal betting, including online options in some jurisdictions.

The U.S. is in early stages of building what many believe will be the largest legal sports betting market in the world, potentially generating hundreds of billions of dollars in bets once fully mature. But not everyone is excited.

Problem gamblers, the services that attempt to help them, and opposition groups worried about any societal scourge that might result from expanded legal sports betting are concerned that their voices are being drowned out as more states open sportsbooks.

And it’s easy to understand why.

Gambling addiction is still often looked at as a moral issue, based on poor decisions rather than the makeup of one’s brain. Science suggests otherwise, experts in the field say.

“People have argued over and over that these people do it to themselves, that this is an issue of morality and greed,” said Dr. Timothy Fong, director of the UCLA department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. “It really isn’t. Their brains are built differently.”

An estimated 5.4 million Americans battle gambling addiction, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling, yet 20 percent of U.S. states do not dedicate any funds toward gambling addiction.

In 2016, $24.4 billion in state and federal funds was dedicated to drug and alcohol addiction treatment, while only $73 million was earmarked for gambling addiction services, with none of that coming from the federal government (per Problem Gambling Solutions, Inc.). There are believed to be roughly four times as many Americans suffering from substance abuse as there are with gambling addiction, but substance abuse receives 330 percent more funding.

With an increasing number of states jumping into the sports betting game and gaming operators and professional sports leagues weighing in on how to best divide the new revenue pie, many feel that the potential risks involved are being overlooked.

“We have the chance to do something the right way,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “We’re not there yet.”

Brian Hatch knew the situation. The prostitute did not.

It was the crack of dawn in Las Vegas, and Hatch was just leaving the Bellagio when she smiled at him as he stepped off the escalator onto The Strip. She was gorgeous and followed him across the street to the Flamingo, where he was staying. She didn’t know he had just fed around $8,000 to the slot machines and had $200 left to his name. At this point in his gambling addiction, though, Hatch was so depressed that he didn’t have the will to turn her down.

“Why not let her come up and hang out?” he rationalized. He didn’t have much to lose.

He was wrong.

“She drank all the vodka in the minibar,” Hatch recalled, nearly four years after his last hurrah in Las Vegas — the last time he gambled.

Hatch, 36, is among the 5.45 million people in the U.S. who meet the criteria for problem gambling, which is similar to the number of Americans battling Alzheimer’s disease. Hatch would become preoccupied with gambling, couldn’t control how much he gambled and couldn’t stop without assistance.

“What we know about gamblers with gambling addiction is that their brains are turned on all the time,” said Fong, the UCLA doctor and problem gambling specialist. “They’re constantly thinking about gambling and having urges and cravings. It doesn’t stop when it’s supposed to. You can imagine how that would be really disruptive to your life.”

Hatch began gambling during his first year of college at Eastern Michigan University. He would drive two-and-a-half hours to Mount Pleasant to gamble at Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort. It started with blackjack, but he felt guilty when his careless approach angered the more serious players at the table. He moved over to roulette, but the time between spins bugged him. He found rock bottom while playing slots.

“Gambling is quintessentially American. It’s part of what makes America. We’ve always been risk-takers.”Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling


Bernal’s passion and delivery are attention-grabbing. They need to be because his presence at committee hearings and gambling conferences, as one industry source put it, sometimes allows lawmakers and industry officials to “check a box.”

A former basketball coach and chief of staff in the Massachusetts State Senate, Bernal is determined to curtail the cultural shift toward the acceptance of gambling businesses and, more specifically, sports betting. He believes America isn’t ready now — and never will be.

“State-sanctioned gambling has been a spectacular failure by every measure,” Bernal told ESPN in a phone interview. “And sports betting would make it even worse.”

2016 Gallup poll found that the number of Americans who bet on sports had been cut in half since 1989, a result that contradicts numbers from Nevada’s growing regulated sports betting industry. According to UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, the amount wagered on sports at Nevada sportsbooks grew from $1.3 billion in 1989 to $4.5 billion in 2016.

“When we talk about acceptance, two-thirds of the American public doesn’t even gamble,” Bernal said. “There’s a huge resistance in gambling.”

The obvious goal in the U.S. will be to stave off any increase in problem gambling, but experts say that’s going to take funding for treatment and a better understanding of what causes gambling addiction.

“It’s only recently that we’ve understood gambling as a medical disorder rather than bad behavior or immoral,” Whyte said. “There’s a lot of shame and stigma. People’s attitudes toward gambling are often shaped by moral or religious views.”

Hatch, who is four years into his recovery from gambling addiction, isn’t confident that there is an answer.

“It’s going to be really bad for some people, it’s going to be somewhat bad for others, and it’ll be fine for the people who just play for entertainment. But it’s the people like me who spend 100 bucks and lose, then next week spend 200, 300 … if you can click a button on your phone and bet, you’re just going to waste everything in your bank account.”

Sports betting — and its cousin, fantasy sports — have been ubiquitous in the U.S. for decades, whether casually with coworkers or more formally through bets with bookmakers. Now, some of that activity is being brought into a regulated market, and America has the opportunity and, some would say, responsibility to get it right.


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