That’s a good thing, as the first evident uptick in problems tied to the state’s ongoing gambling expansion appeared this football season.
The helpline maintained by the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania handled 26 calls in September-December from individuals reporting sports betting problems, compared to just 10 in the same period in 2018.
While the overall number of callers reporting compulsive gambling problems actually dropped to 1,134 in 2019 from 1,159 the year before, the sports-related calls nearly doubled in the first full year of legalized sports betting in Pennsylvania.
The percentage of callers identifying sports betting as their primary problem remained relatively small, at 7%, but they represented only 3% the year before. And while 26 desperate calls in four months hardly seems striking in a state with more than 10 million adults, just a tiny fraction of people with such problems are known to seek help.
“It’s not like the floodgates opened,” said Josh Ercole, executive director of the compulsive gambling council, “but we anticipated we would see an increase, and we did. When you see an increase in availability, you’re going to see more people participate, and unfortunately, you’re going to see more problems along with that.”
PA effort credited for matching intent
The Responsible Gambling Collaborative this month issued its report, Gaming Taxes and State Responsible Gambling Appropriations, reviewing Pennsylvania’s experience alongside 13 other states.
The new national group is made up a combination of industry stakeholders and universities in addition to organizations focused on problem gambling. Its research examined budget documents, legislation, vendor contracts, media reports, and other means of evaluating “whether states are in fact using the proceeds from gaming taxes as intended.”
Most states with casino industries or other forms of legalized gambling dictate that a portion of the revenue be reserved for problem gambling efforts, as 1-2% of the population is generally deemed to be addicted to gambling. In Pennsylvania, 0.2% of gaming revenue is dedicated by law to the Compulsive and Problem Gambling Treatment Fund.
The report placed Pennsylvania with Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Nevada, and New York among states that “likely spent the allocated tax money on [responsible gambling] issues.”
It stated Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma “likely did not spend” their dedicated tax money as intended. California, Iowa, Mississippi, and Ohio were said to be “unclear” on the issue, with funds potentially diverted to other issues or rolled back.
More than $4 mm spent annually on issue
The Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs oversees the use of such funds in Pennsylvania. It received $4.6 mm in gaming funds for problem gambling initiatives in 2018-19 and spent $4.4 mm, department spokeswoman Rachel Kostelac said in an email.
She said 86% of that amount was directed to county programs that sponsor problem gambling assessments or education and outreach programs and other approved services. Another 9% was disbursed to state-certified treatment providers who counseled problem gamblers lacking their own insurance to cover costs of therapy.
Fewer than 200 people a year receive such state-supported treatment, partly because they have other means of covering costs, but also because of the modest number of state-certified gambling treatment counselors statewide and, especially, because a low percentage of problem gamblers pursue therapy.
While most of the money goes to broad prevention/education programs, Kostelac said that “because our funds are based on need, money can be shifted from prevention to treatment allocations as more people enter treatment.”
The gambling expansion has begun increasing the level of funds attached to problem gambling efforts — nearly $100,000 more due to legalized sports betting and fantasy sports in 2018-19 and even higher amounts in the current fiscal year.
Kostelac said the additional money has helped the state recruit 40 additional certified treatment counselors since July 2018. There are now 75 such counselors who can provide state-reimbursed services in 32 counties, she said. Still, there are more counties without such counselors — typically in less populated parts of the state — than those that have them.
Collaborative efforts on the issue praised
Ercole said he was not surprised that Pennsylvania compared well in the national report, as the state has legislated proper safeguards while launching and expanding different aspects of gambling,
Also, he said, the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, Pennsylvania Lottery, and the various casinos have all cooperated well on the issue with his organization and one another for more than a decade now. The compulsive gambling council receives much of its funding through contracts to provide education, training, and other services for the state, county agencies, and casinos.
The different entities took part in producing a 2019 Problem Gambling Strategic Plan with five stated goals: increasing public awareness of the topic, expanding the treatment workforce, expanding prevention/education efforts, promoting the 1-800-GAMBLER helpline more, and promoting “best practices” in prevention and treatment to recognize new aspects such as online gambling.
“We’re able to have an open dialogue and we all kind of lean on each other to put into place things that make sense,” Ercole said. “Pennsylvania as a state is in fairly good shape with protections.”
That means that while new internet access to sports betting, online casino games, and the lottery has increased risks in the past year — by opening gambling opportunity to many people distant from casinos — there are also provisions enabling those players aware of a possible problem to set limits restricting their money spent on and time devoted to online gambling.
No data is available on how many individuals take advantage of such options. At the same time, the average person’s exposure to gambling opportunities has exploded.
“It’s something not only available, but highly marketed throughout the state,” Ercole noted. “You can’t turn on a sports radio show for a couple of minutes without hearing an ad.
“It’s fine that more people are participating now and enjoying themselves — that’s not necessarily a bad thing — but the concern is who is out there who is not enjoying themselves and taking it to a level where they can’t afford what they’re spending or is getting in over their head.”
Referring to the 26 cases in which helpline counselors offered advice and referrals to sports bettors in the last four months of 2019, Ercole said, “This reflects only those calling. There’s probably a good number out there with problems who are not quite ready to talk about it. We’ll see what happens in the next couple of months and in the next year.”
Pennsylvanians seeking help can call 1-800-GAMBLER to obtain information about treatment options, Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and other services that may be helpful.
The council, meanwhile, has two upcoming annual conferences providing information to the provider community, on March 5 in Trevose, Bucks County, and on March 12 in Pittsburgh. Information on those is available at pacouncil.com.
Photo by Bill Streitcher / USA Today Sports