15 million. That’s how many people around the United States display some form of problem gambling, according to a Pennsylvania problem gambling advocacy site.
A 2017 Rutgers University study on gambling behavior in New Jersey painted a grim picture of the Garden State’s ability to combat the issue, as the study showed adults in NJ are four times as likely to be problem gamblers than the national average.
Problem gambling can be devastating for individuals and families, causing depression in more than three quarters of its victims and suicide rates twenty times higher than the rates for non gamblers. Rates are also much higher than normal for domestic violence, divorce and child neglect when problem gambling is involved.
A diverse array of individuals and interest groups around Pennsylvania have voiced concerns about problem gambling growing in response to the recent gambling expansion passed by the state.
Problem gambling online prevalence
With New Jersey being one of only two states to have legal online gambling at the time of the Rutgers study, readers could put one and one together and assume the high problem gambling rates are not a coincidence.
The concerns are justified on some level.
In the study, the mixed venue group (players who gambled both online and in B&M casinos) had the highest rate of problem gambling, and players who only played online had the second highest. B&M only gamblers had the lowest rate of the three.
While New Jersey’s regulated online casinos have more protections for players than offshore gaming sites, it’s clear there’s still work to be done to combat this problem. Pennsylvania will need to be proactive to avoid falling into this trap.
Satellite casinos, closer facilities
One of the many things included in the recently passed law was the authorization of satellite casinos, smaller facilities to be operated by existing license holders, most likely in areas of the state that do not currently have nearby gambling options.
The inclusion of satellite casinos in the new law was quite controversial, and a growing number of towns are opting out of consideration for hosting one. The jury is still out on whether or not casino proximity leads to a rise in problem gambling behavior, but some towns understandably don’t want to take the risk.
VGT’s perhaps the biggest concern
More worrying, among the provisions in HB 271, is the introduction of Video Gaming Terminals (VGT’s).
VGT’s were consistently the most controversial part of the package, throughout the long period of debate. And while opponents didn’t succeed in keeping them out of the final bill, they did manage to secure a compromise where VGT’s will only be allowed at truck stops. The original bill passed by the House would have allowed them in restaurants, bars and private clubs as well.
Illinois has had legal VGT’s since 2012, and there’s been an uptick in gambling problems over the same period. The VGT’s in Illinois are, however, located in a wide variety of establishments including restaurants, bars and even clubs set up specifically for the purpose of hosting them.
Perhaps Pennsylvania won’t have the same issue due to lower prevalence, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Pennsylvania’s gambling expansion creates an exciting opportunity for gaming businesses, online poker players and gambling enthusiasts around the area.
There are, however, some real risks to expanding gambling in the state, including higher-than-normal problem gambling rates at online casinos, closer proximity for many residents once satellite facilities open and the coming availability of video gaming terminals.
I hope and expect the state to follow its big move with careful consumer protections and adequate help for those who need it.