The big increase in revenue connected to online casino play and sports betting in 2021 was accompanied by a commensurate jump in calls to a state problem gambling help line from people overindulging in those activities, numbers from the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania show.
The near-doubling of calls from state residents to the 800-GAMBLER help line — from 1,115 in 2020 to 2,090 in 2021 — concerned but did not surprise Josh Ercole, the council’s executive director. He said the widespread access to and advertising of the newer forms of legal gaming would naturally attract people who haven’t been exposed to such temptations before, and who may suffer from financial or other personal problems when they can’t control themselves.
What stood out last year, however, was how the age of callers reporting problems skewed younger than in the past.
While calls specifically seeking help (there were actually 16,680 Pennsylvania-based calls to the national help line, but only the 2,090 were tied to actual problem gambling) were up 87.4% overall, there were notable spikes among the three youngest groups of adults identified as segments in the council’s annual data:
|Problem gambling help line calls||2020||2021||Percentage increase|
The help line information comes on the heels of release this month of a state-funded survey showing one of nine Pennsylvanians reported they had gambled online. Estimates from problem gambling experts generally peg the percentage of the population with such issues at around 2%, but suggest there’s an additional percentage of those who are at risk from any increased exposure and opportunity.
Warning signs in 2020 preceded big spike
The Council on Compulsive Gambling is a private, nonprofit group that receives funding assistance from the state’s taxable share of gambling proceeds. It is not an anti-gambling group, but one that promotes education of the public about responsible gambling and trains both private counselors and casino staff on methods to identify and help those with problems.
Part of the council’s state funding supports operation of the help line, where callers are given information and referrals, and the call volume had been relatively stable in recent years prior to 2021: 1,159 in 2018; 1,134 in 2019; and 1,115 in 2020.
The 2020 numbers were a bit deceiving, however, in that COVID’s shutdown of brick-and-mortar casinos in much of that year reduced calls from people whose problems were tied to such visits. Calls related to internet gambling spiked in 2020, as did calls connected to sports gambling that autumn after the major sports resumed play, and those trends showed up again last year. Online sports betting makes up more than 90% of the volume in that industry, and both it and iCasino play have only been common in the state since mid-2019.
While calls connected to casino slot play in 2021 remained most common at 408, they were nearly matched by 407 internet gambling calls (up from 250 in 2020). The next most common call subject was sports betting at 221 (up from 68).
“The new types of games are very popular and are generating a tremendous amount of participation and revenue, but we’re also seeing problems from them,” Ercole said. “That’s not to say those activities weren’t taking place prior to legalization, but that legalization took down a lot of barriers. Folks were maybe worried about doing it before because it wasn’t legal, or they maybe didn’t know how to access it before and now they can easily access it.”
The online legalization also opened gambling to people who may live a good distance from physical casinos and wouldn’t normally engage in the behavior, Ercole noted. At the same time, the barrage of television advertising about such opportunities “has normalized the activity and exposed it to a lot of people who may not have been aware of it or participated in the past, and those people may not understand the risks.”
Online options attract younger gamblers
Online gambling is known to have more appeal to younger adults, compared to the physical casinos that may remain more popular with the older demographic. That means the council and the state need to broaden their focus in how they reach out to at-risk gamblers, with more social media emphasis rather than just relying on more traditional methods, Ercole noted. He pointed out that the council responded to 241 requests for help via text or chat in 2021, in addition to the phone line.
One benefit of the online forms of gambling is they have tools available for participants to limit their spending or time on the sites, Ercole said, and he said those need to be well-promoted by the various operators. No information has been made publicly available on just how many customers take advantage of those options.
For those who do have problems that they’re unable to control themselves and would benefit from counseling, the state provides funding to assist those who lack their own resources, such as private insurance coverage. Ercole said the state’s approval of tele-counseling in recent years has been a benefit both because of COVID concerns and for those outside of big cities who may be far from a state-certified counselor.
One aspect of the increased call volume that may represent a benefit rather than a negative from gambling expansion and advertising, Ercole acknowledged, is some of the surge in calls might result simply from the public having more awareness of the phone number and the possibilities that exist for help. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board mandates promotion of a help line phone number by operators in the gaming industry.
“That’s the hope, that’s it’s not just more problems, but maybe better awareness,” he said. “The hope is that this is also reducing some of the stigma associated with the situation, and maybe folks needing help see they are not alone. Making that call is a big first step. When I talk to folks [with problems], I celebrate that and applaud their bravery for taking that step.”
In addition to using the 800-GAMBLER help line to access help, individuals may go through the gaming board’s special website to obtain helpful information about the topic, including how to exclude themselves from physical or online casinos.