Helpline calls for gambling addiction problems in Pennsylvania went up sharply last year, even if not as dramatically as the year before.
Data provided to Penn Bets by the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania showed there were 2,621 calls from those in need of help in 2022, a 25.4% increase from 2021. The biggest spikes came in calls related to internet gambling problems, up 51.8% to 618, and sports betting, up 33.9% to 296.
The surge in calls to 1-800-GAMBLER and related helplines from within Pennsylvania was a more extreme 87.4% between 2020 and 2021, but Josh Ercole, executive director of the nonprofit council, took little solace from the slowdown in increase last year.
“It’s still an increase, so things are still trending up” in number of people in need of help, he noted. “Even though it’s not double, I don’t think anyone expected it to nearly double again because there wasn’t anything so new [in gambling options last year]. 2021 brought us a lot of new activities and a lot of new games and the removal of the pandemic closures.”
Pennsylvania now has 18 legal online casinos, which evidently are responsible for the biggest call increases, even if the 759 calls associated with in-person play of slots and table games represent a bigger volume. The number of brick-and-mortar casinos in the state has increased from 12 to 17 in the past few years, and the calls apparently connected to them increased 25.2% between 2021 and 2022.
The online numbers, though, indicate “people are having problems with types of gambling that weren’t always as readily available as there are now,” Ercole said. “Sports betting is nothing new in Pennsylvania, but legal sports betting is. The same thing with internet casino gambling.”
Silver lining: more awareness of help
Ercole traces the second half of 2021 as the beginning of when helpline calls actually began spiking from prior years. The one positive he takes from that is how much more prevalent the advertising of 1-800-GAMBLER has become, a requirement that is part of state regulations for gaming operators.
A certain amount of increased call volume represents greater awareness of potential help rather than necessarily indicating problems that didn’t exist before, though that’s one statistic that can’t be broken out with specific numbers.
“I think there’s a little bit of each mixed in, and I try to look for silver linings,” Ercole said. “I think there’s more problems, but there’s also something to be said for increased awareness.”
A call to 1-800-GAMBLER, a service for which the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania contracts with the National Council on Problem Gambling, connects a caller to a national referral center in Louisiana. Based on what area code the call is made from, a helpline specialist will direct them to potential resources near them — whether it be counselors who treat gambling addiction, Gamblers Anonymous meetings, Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board self-exclusion lists, or other assistance. Pennsylvania uses a portion of taxes collected from gaming operators to subsidize treatment help for those who qualify financially.
Ercole noted that one benefit of the pandemic was it created a lot of virtual support meetings and online individual therapy related to gambling addiction that did not exist before, making help more accessible for those who are geographically isolated and creating forums for those with specialized needs.
Biggest age group calling: those 25-to-34
One other type of spike between 2020 and 2021 that showed some moderation last year was in the number of young adults indicating problems by helpline calls. Their numbers still went up last year, but not at the same level of increase. Calls from those in the 18-24 and 35-44 age groups more than doubled between 2020 and 2021, and calls from those ages 25-34 went up 84.2%.
Calls from those groups all increased last year, but the 20.9% spike in the 25-34 age group (from 468 to 566) was the biggest among them. Ercole still finds that notable, in that the 25-34 age group has become responsible for more calls than any other 10-year demographic. That wasn’t the case until the past few years.
Ercole connects that to how younger adults are the ones more enamored with the online casino play and sports betting that have been a key part of Pennsylvania’s rise in gambling activity and gaming revenue ever since wide-ranging 2017 expansion legislation was enacted. And there’s one distinctive factor in 2023 rather than last year that affects those who might be vulnerable to overindulging in sports betting: the involvement of the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Feb. 12.
Advocacy groups like the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania, a private group that promotes problem gambling treatment and awareness without taking a stand for or against gambling, always increase messaging near the Super Bowl due to it being the No. 1 sports betting event of the year. That messaging will be even more relevant over the next 10 days considering the Eagles’ heavy fan following and how ubiquitous information about the game — and the potential to bet on it — will be in eastern Pennsylvania.
“Let’s not forget there’s always going to be more interest because of a home team,” Ercole said. “It’s just that many more weeks of interest in wagering that’s intensified,” with it even trickling down to school-age groups because of the widespread attention. And because it’s the last game of football season, he noted, some regular bettors may be trying to bet heavily to make up for losses during the season.
With all that in mind, he said, the council will be looking to increase messaging about responsible gambling — such as urging people to set and abide by limits — next week and asking the online gaming operators it works with to do the same.
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