Pennsylvania’s Online Responsible Gambling Standards Lauded, But Operators Could Do More

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Pennsylvania’s first online sportsbooks and casinos began operating a little more than a year ago, and they all make responsible gambling tools available to consumers to voluntarily control excessive play.

That recognition of the potential for problem gambling in the new iGaming era reflects a positive collaboration between gaming operators and state regulators in Pennsylvania, which other states would do well to follow, according to comments from an online panel last week.

“I think it’s important that we really work with our operators as a partnership,” Elizabeth Lanza, director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s Office of Compulsive and Problem Gambling, said during a discussion presented by iDEA Growth, an industry association that advocates for online gambling in the U.S.

Lanza represented regulators while others represented the gaming industry and national advocates focused on problem gambling during Friday’s iDEA discussion, titled “Responsible Gaming as Business Strategy: How to Keep Consumers Safe, Regulation Rational and Business Booming.”

The attitude of Lanza and the PGCB vis a vis gaming operators in the state was cited in contrast to some recent regulations and fines imposed by European jurisdictions on online gaming operators that were described as excessive.

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“I can say I know our Office of Enforcement Counsel isn’t afraid to lay down the law when they need to and have fined some licensees for not doing what they should be doing,” Lanza said. “But I feel like that’s few and far between. I feel like we are more partners with our licensees when it comes to responsible gambling than anything else.”

Companies still vary in how to prioritize issue

Pennsylvania has 10 online casino sites and nine digital sportsbooks, with a 10th to be added this week by Penn National Gaming. In many cases, a single operator hosts both kinds of sites, but Lanza noted a wide variance in operators’ approaches to responsible gaming.

“There are some that are hitting it out of the park with responsible gambling and advocating for their players and programs and different responsible gambling tools to be available, and there are others advocating for themselves and don’t necessarily think they should do everything we require of them,” Lanza said. “It really just depends on the company.”

Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, and Emma Richardson, general counsel of White Hat Gaming, a European firm which manages player platforms for online sites, credited Pennsylvania with taking the right steps with regards to all operators.

“[Lanza] has very high standards for online gambling, which is good,” Whyte commented, “but many of her colleagues [across the country]  do not.”

Richardson said the requirements addressing responsible gambling safeguards in Pennsylvania and some other U.S. states are proper and not onerous, compared to jurisdictions in Europe.

“Sitting with the PGCB and others, I was really taken aback by the partnership approach and the innovation that was bubbling over,” Richardson said. “There’s a real sense in Europe that we fear our regulators. What I sense from the PGCB and other regulators [in the United States]  is they’re really open to hear what works and doesn’t work.”

Lanza agreed, acknowledging that operators often know better than regulators what makes the most sense from firsthand experience with their customers.

“If things aren’t going as planned, which happens on a daily basis, please let me know, and let’s update our policies together,” she said. “If you have plans and policies in place and they don’t work, there’s no point in having them.”

A step forward from the land-based casinos

Whyte, whose nonprofit is the nation’s leading organization for those involved in treatment of problem gamblers, put the iGaming field in a more positive light than traditional casino operators.

While not every iGaming operator is perfect, he said, many understand they have responsibilities and tools to assist those with problems. The better companies make use of the new technology regardless of what regulators require them to do, which is important given the wide range of different states’ approaches to responsible gambling, Whyte said.

“In online gaming there have been a lot of lessons learned, and even traditional land-based companies are doing far more responsible gaming online in general than they do in their land-based operations,” Whyte said. “I think online operators are starting at a far higher level.”

However, in Whyte’s view, most mobile operators can do even more to use data to help irresponsible players. They track all kinds of player information that can tip them off about problems, Whyte said, but instead of intervening with customers, they shy away for fear of liability or reluctance to accept the role of “auto-psychologist.” That’s a difference from European operators that is harmful in the United States, he suggested.

“There will always be risks, players who fall through the cracks,” Whyte said. “We can never prevent and eliminate a disease like gambling addiction, it trivializes it to believe so.” But, he added, “we can do better to inform, to educate, to use the technology for good as well as maximizing profit.”

Self-exclusion lists are hard to unify

Among the Pennsylvania gaming board’s responsible gambling tools is its set of voluntary self-exclusion lists designed to prevent compulsive gamblers from either walking into a casino or playing online, if they are so concerned about their risks that they sign up.

The panelists agreed that creating a national database to share names and information among states would be better, but that practical concerns make that difficult for now.

Lanza said she and peers nationally have discussed the issue but run into roadblocks because jurisdictions adopt different methods of creating the lists, with different rules attached. In Pennsylvania, for example, people who opt in to self-exclusion lists agree to be placed under arrest for trespass if they’re caught in a casino, but that’s not always the case in other states.

A similar patchwork exists for the many different ways in which states regulate problem gambling. Whyte noted the problem of differing states using separate hotline numbers instead of agreeing on a single number.

“I think it’s important just to continue to work with other states,” Lanza said. “I don’t have a good, solid answer of how we become more uniform nationwide.”

Without a national governing body and set of regulations for responsible gambling, Whyte said, it’s up to regulators, the industry, and advocates to coalesce around best practices, to have “harmonization” on how operators should conduct themselves to protect at-risk customers.

Too many operators, he said, remain “passive” while saying the right things publicly about responsible gambling. According to Whyte, they would help their image and operations by using all of the data available to them and prioritizing the issue.

And regulators, Whyte said, should be more like those in Pennsylvania instead of following what he called “the Nevada model” of simply putting up a casino sign or online banner urging players to gamble responsibly.

“We all have a role in this,” Lanza agreed. “I think it’s important for all of us who are players in the responsible gambling field, that we all take responsibility and do all that we can to help those who may need it now or in the future.”

Photo provided by Shutterstock

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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