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Gambling Addiction Researchers Wary Amid Supreme Court OK'ing Legal Sports Betting

The Race & Sports SuperBook at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino before 400 proposition bets for Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots were posted on Jan. 26, 2017 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Race & Sports SuperBook at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino before 400 proposition bets for Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots were posted on Jan. 26, 2017 in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Gambling addiction researchers are concerned about a potential rise in problem gamblers, following the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a 1992 federal law that prevented states from permitting sports betting.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Lia Nower (@KnowDice), director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, and Michael Burke, who was addicted to gambling and is now executive director of the Michigan Association on Problem Gambling.

Nower’s research found that most sports betters in New Jersey — the state that sued to legalize sports gambling — are 18 to 34 years old, half of them gamble once a week or more and almost two-thirds of them are at high risk of becoming addicted.

“Based on studies that we’ve done, folks that gamble on sports tend to gamble more often and have more problems than the average gambler,” Nower says. “A lot of legislation throws money at treatment, and my experience has been that by the time people need treatment, there’s already a lot of devastation.”

Interview Highlights

On safeguards that states could implement

Michael Burke: “What we’re asking for is that the states start to pony up money to take care of the problems that are going to result because of this increase in gambling. We know that whenever there’s an expansion of legalized sports gaming in the United States, there will be an increase in gambling participation — which also means we know that there will be an increase in gambling problems. All the states that are going to legalize sports betting we hope will be responsible stewards, and help to take care of the problems that are going to exist.”

On setting gambling limits

MB: “I was in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago speaking at the state gambling conference, and one of the groups that also spoke was MGM Grand Casino and Hotel, they talked about their new GameSense program. They come in, they help their clients set limits as far as the amount of time they gamble and the amount of money they spend. They’re taking a really big step to help people get assistance before they get into the later stages of problem gambling.”

On Burke’s experience losing his career as a lawyer and going to prison over gambling

MB: “I probably had gambled 14 or 15 years. I’d go to Vegas once a year — we did not have gambling in Michigan at that time, except for the lottery. And my downfall was proximity. They opened a casino in Windsor that was less than an hour from Howell, where I lived. I found that I started going over a couple days a week, spending what I thought was a reasonable amount of money — up to $300. I set the limits, I maintained them. But what happened is down the road, of course, it changes and I start chasing the money I’ve lost. And I actually ended up embezzling $1.6 million from my clients, and I spent 3 to 10 years as a result of this in Jackson [State Prison].”

On the need for prevention

Lia Nower: “We don’t have preventative mechanisms and accountability in places like race tracks. Casinos have a long history with self-exclusion programs, some work more than others. But if the states don’t require evaluation and accountability, like we have in New Jersey for online, there’s no way to find out if these people really do have resources.

“I would like to see a standardized protocol for educating people on what options there are to set their limits. And I would like to see, whoever offers sports betting, that a percentage be dedicated not just to treatment, but also to evaluating the outcomes of these responsible gaming programs every year — meaning that the venues have to keep the data and then the data is evaluated on who is playing, who is opting for these different limit-setting mechanisms, how are they working and how can we improve them so that it’s a very dynamic system aimed at harm reduction.”

On how to alert at-risk gamblers

LN: “There’s a lot of different countries and states that have different ways of dealing with this. Some people use pop-ups. I mean in a sports arena, understand that these casinos all know what people are spending. And that’s what’s used for marketing purposes. And so they can use this for good to help educate the person: ‘Hey, you set this limit for yourself. You then took it off. Now, you’re three times your limit. Would you like to set this again? Would you like to look at this again?’ ”

On reaching out to people seeking treatment for other addictions

MB: “I have a very strong feeling about how we can do the most good and that is to go into substance abuse treatment centers and start mandating that they do more educating to their clients about not trading their substance abuse addiction for gambling addiction. And that is exactly what I did. I stopped drinking 40 years ago. But what I did is I traded it for another addiction. I never got involved in drugs after my treatment because the people at the treatment center terrified me about trading an alcohol addiction for drug addiction.”

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