Massachusetts Gaming Commission takes research of gambling data seriously

States Could Benefit From Following Massachusetts’ Lead In Handling Problem Gambling

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Massachusetts had long-resisted the allure of casino gambling prior to passing legislation in 2011.

Eventually, the amount of revenue from Massachusetts residents flowing into casinos in neighboring states was too much to ignore, and Massachusetts authorized casino gaming … in a very Massachusetts way.

The state is often taking a forward-looking approach to gaming. Here, Massachusetts took a conscientious approach to casino gaming, placing a never-before-seen emphasis on mitigating the social harms associated with major gaming expansions.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission stands at the forefront of this effort. The body’s mission statement reads:

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission will strive to ensure that its decision making and regulatory systems engender the confidence of the public and participants, and that they provide the greatest possible economic development benefits and revenues to the people of the Commonwealth, reduce to the maximum extent possible the potentially negative or unintended consequences of the new legislation, and allow an appropriate return on investment for gaming providers that assures the operation of casino-resorts of the highest quality.

The provision of gambling services designed to encourage players to maintain their gambling at a healthy level and minimize harm to consumers and the community.

MGC officials have boiled the mission statement down to maximizing the benefits of gaming while minimizing the adverse effects. An analysis of social impacts influences virtually every MGC decision.

You can’t track what you don’t measure

One of the MGC’s pillars is state-mandated, multi-year research.

To better understand the impact of expanded gambling, the research began before Massachusetts’ casinos opened their doors, giving the state a baseline from which to work.

That research — along with reviews of academic papers and studies, policy papers, investigative reports, jurisdictional reviews, corporate reporting documents, and legislation and regulation in Massachusetts and beyond — has helped the MGC develop its Responsible Gaming Framework.

Recently, the MGC unveiled “Version 2.0” of the Responsible Gaming Framework.

Responsible Gaming Framework Version 2.0

In addition to evaluating the efficacy of current responsible gaming policies, the RGF identifies seven key strategies as important to mitigating the harms of problem gambling:

  1. Commit to corporate social responsibility
  2. Support positive play
  3. Promote public health and safety within the physical environment
  4. Ensure responsible marketing
  5. Manage high-risk financial transactions
  6. Engage the community
  7. Commit to continuous improvement and reporting

These conclusions draw heavily from the multi-year research study, particularly the tracking of gambling habits from the pre-casino era to present.

Wave 1 research sets the baseline

In 2013-14, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission conducted a Baseline General Population Survey before any of the state’s casinos opened for business. Over 9,500 Massachusetts residents responded to the survey, providing the state with the following baseline gambling behaviors:

  • 24.9 percent of the population does not gamble
  • 34.6 percent gamble yearly
  • 20.4 percent gamble monthly
  • 18.1 percent gamble weekly

Of the 75.1 percent of respondents who gamble, only 21 percent visited casinos to gamble. This likely signifies a high number of lottery players.

The baseline problem gambling figure came in at two percent, with a further 8.4 percent of respondents designated as “at-risk.”

Problem gambling is generally defined by the MGC as “difficulties in limiting money and/or time spent on gambling which leads to adverse consequences for the gambler, others, or for the community.”

Here’s the full breakdown from the survey:

  • Non-gamblers: 24.9 percent
  • Recreational gamblers: 64.7 percent
  • At-risk: 8.4 percent
  • Problem gamblers: Two percent

Wave 2 research challenges traditional beliefs

The Massachusetts regulatory body conducted Wave 2 research in 2015. The MGC collected this data before Plainridge Park Casino opened, providing multiple years of pre-casino data.

Interestingly, there was a lot of movement among the four categories between the two studies. It’s important to note the movement wasn’t always in a negative direction. That indicates gambling habits are more fluid than previously believed.

One of the more surprising bits of data comes from the two percent of respondents initially categorized as problem gamblers.

The problem gambling incidence rate between the two studies increased slightly, from two to 2.4 percent. What was surprising was the increase occurred even though nearly 50 percent of designated problem gamblers were moved to the at-risk and recreational gambler categories.

Here’s a data breakdown on problem/pathological gamblers from Wave I (the non-100 percent total is due to some patrons dropping out of the survey):

  • 49.4 percent remained in this category in Wave II.
  • 20.3 percent moved into the Recreational Gambling category.
  • 29.1 percent moved into the At-Risk Gambler category.

The Wave II research also found:

  • 50.9 percent of at-risk gamblers were downgraded to recreational gamblers, with 9.6 percent moved into the problem gambling category.
  • A full third of non-gamblers in 2013 to 2015 gambled in the 2015 study.
  • Just over 11 percent of recreational gamblers were moved to the at-risk (10.4 percent) and problem gambler (one percent) categories. Conversely, 8.3 percent of recreational gamblers in 2013-14 study didn’t gamble in the 2015 study.

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What does this all mean?

The top-line takeaway is to avoid knee-jerk reactions when there are substantial changes in data.

In fact, the evidence so far suggests Massachusetts should expect a lot of movement between categories and take a longer-term view of player behaviors.

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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