PA Survey Will Assess New iGaming’s Impact And Link To Problem Gambling

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While the modernized gambling from Pennsylvania’s 2017 legalization of online forms of casinos, sports betting, and lottery play has been going on for more than a year, there’s a related aspect just getting underway now.

Researchers at Penn State University, funded by a state grant from the proceeds of iGaming, are starting work on a comprehensive survey of how Pennsylvanians have been impacted by the addition of interactive gaming.

Glenn Sterner, the Penn State University Abington assistant professor of criminal justice who is heading the study, said some 2,500 to 3,000 phone surveys are to be conducted between November and June to assess the level of new online gambling by Pennsylvanians and the extent of any problems it is creating.

The goal is to continue the survey year to year and determine long-term changes in the level of gambling and its impact, he said.

“We want to have a good understanding of all of the interactive gaming activity in Pennsylvania,” Sterner told Penn Bets. “We want to understand trends over time, and if activities in one area affect activities in another area. … It gives us a lot of opportunity to help develop meaningful policy and results we can track from year to year.”

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New law mandated and funded the study

Pennsylvanians lost more than $400 million combined playing online/mobile casino games, making sports bets through the sportsbook apps, and playing the iLottery in the 2019-20 fiscal year, and the number will only go higher this year as a result of additional available sites.

Such wagers would not have been possible without the October 2017 law that legalized all such forms of interactive gaming. The expansion has been an asset in offsetting brick-and-mortar gaming revenue decreases from this year’s COVID-19 outbreak, but lawmakers also recognized the potential for the new gambling to create more gambling-related problems in the state.

Rachel Kostelac, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, which oversees gambling-related treatment in the state, said the 2017 law required that a study be conducted of its impact.

The department has provided $461,000 to Sterner and his Penn State colleagues in the school’s Social Science Research Institute and Survey Research Center for the first year of research.

“This is the first time Pennsylvania has had a probability study focused solely on problem gambling,” Kostelac said. “This report could show the need for changes to the prevention or treatment systems already in place, expansions of treatment and prevention, and potentially even a need for more funding related to prevention or treatment.”

The Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs receives nearly $5 million annually from gaming revenue to oversee programs related to problem gambling education, prevention, and treatment. Generally, about 2% of the population is deemed to have a gambling problem, although most never obtain treatment for it.

While the research grant only covers funding for the initial year’s study by Penn State, Kostelac said the state expects additional work in future years to “show whether participation in interactive gaming has increased.”

Little prior research of iGaming to go by

In selecting Sterner to oversee the study, the state picked an academic researcher whose primary work up to now has been in studying opioid addiction. He is not a big gambler personally and has never gambled online, he said, but he acknowledged being intrigued by the operation of slot machines when in casinos.

While the study’s focus is on the new iGaming, it could also explore the extent of more traditional forms of gambling — and problems related to them — as a point of comparison. Sterner said he did not want to get into the specifics of questions on the survey, however, as they are still being developed.

The potential for excessive gambling by smartphone and computer is even more of a hidden addiction than that in casinos, he noted, in that people never have to leave their homes and be seen doing it. At the same time, various researchers have suggested the speed and 24-hour availability of iGaming opportunities create additional risks.

“Our survey will build on previous work asking questions in ways that would help to signal” if someone has a gambling problem, Sterner said. “We are hoping to understand if there are behaviors that might signal those problems to the people developing policies and procedures [to combat gambling addiction].”

No specific study on interactive gaming has been done elsewhere that the Pennsylvania researchers will use as a guide, he said. It’s still a relatively new field of addiction, with most research on it done in Europe and Australia, where online gambling was adopted more widely earlier than in the U.S.

Sterner said the hope is to have surveys completed by June and analyzed quickly enough to provide results from the study to state officials next summer.

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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 gary@usbets.com.

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