Problem gambling affects some 6 million Americans, a number that will only grow in 2020

Every Month Should Be Problem Gambling Awareness Month

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March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month in the US, and the annual initiative is of the utmost importance in 2020.

The ongoing, nationwide expansion means that more Americans have more ways to gamble than ever before. Some will do so responsibly, of course, while others will develop problematic habits.

Legalization also brings opportunities to elevate the public discourse surrounding the latter.

Problem Gambling Awareness Month launched in 2003 from the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG). At the time, the online poker boom was just beginning. Now, the US is on the cusp of a likely similar boom — mostly for sports betting but, in some states, online casino and poker as well.

March is a particularly apt choice, as NCAA March Madness historically makes it the biggest month of the year for US sports betting.

Problem gambling, by the numbers

Problem gambling is sometimes called “the invisible addiction.”

Although it lacks the dependency component of substance abuse, it is an impulse-control disorder with similar psychological underpinnings. It doesn’t produce any physical symptoms, though. A majority of those affected manage to keep the extent of their troubles hidden even from those close to them.

An estimated 6 million people suffer from problem gambling in the US or roughly 1 in 40 adults.

That’s somewhat less than the 10 million who abuse prescription painkillers or the 30 million with a drinking problem. It is likely an underestimate, however, due to the relatively invisible nature of gambling addiction. It’s also likely to grow in the coming years.

Americans with gambling issues carry an average of $45,000 in personal debt, almost 20% higher than the national average. Problem gambling correlates strongly with depression and self-destructive behavior, too. Those struggling with gambling addiction are five times more likely than the average person to contemplate suicide and 15 times more likely to attempt it.

Almost two-thirds of problem gamblers also have anger management issues. This, in turn, means a higher rate of domestic violence.

A case study from online poker

Jamie Salsburg is an expert on the topic and the host of the After Gambling podcast. He’s also the founder of dyve, an agency that consults on risk mitigation and responsible messaging for the gambling industry, sports leagues, and advertising media.

Salsburg is a former problem gambler himself whose weakness was poker — specifically online poker. His addiction materialized just as the game became mainstream in 2003 and Salsburg, like many people, believed the skill element made poker distinct from other forms of gambling.

Indeed, he was a winning player at first. Once he began to move up in stakes, however, Salsburg’s emotions started to get the better of him. Bouts of impulsive, angry play turned him from a small winner to a big loser. He began racking up credit card debt.

It took several failed attempts to quit  and an ultimatum from his fiancée before Salsburg finally sought the outside help that ultimately allowed him to kick the habit.

Problem gambling: a threefold problem

Speaking to OPR, Salsburg likened the current situation to “the first inning of a nine-inning game.”

Gambling in the US is changing qualitatively, not just quantitatively. Sports betting, most notably, was once illegal everywhere outside of Nevada. Now it’s legally available in more than a dozen states, while almost a dozen more have laws in place pending launch.

Like poker, sports betting features an element of skill that appeals to those with a competitive streak. It can, therefore, seem to some like a smarter choice than other forms of gambling.

Perhaps more importantly, the rise of mobile betting makes gambling more accessible than ever before.

Salsburg says the situation is dangerous because “we are removing [barriers to access] without first having a conversation about how to do it.” As he sees it, there are three basic problems with the way problem gambling is currently being addressed — or not addressed:

  • Lack of funding for responsible gambling programs.
  • Public largely overlooks or misunderstands the problem.
  • Rapid expansion leads some stakeholders to trade sustainability for instant profit.

Zero funding at the federal level

2016 NCPG study determined that state governments annually spend $73 million to address problem gambling. However, 10 states had no budget for treatment at that time.

Although a few of those have since launched public programs in a limited fashion, spending at the federal level remains nonexistent. Even among the 40 states with public problem gambling policies in 2016, the amounts were clearly insufficient when stated in per capita terms.

Delaware, at the high end, spent $1.46 per resident. At the low end, South Carolina spent just $0.01 per capita. Using the estimate of six million Americans with a gambling problem, states as a whole allocate only $12 per sufferer per year. That money has to be spread between efforts to raise awareness, research, and treatment programs.

Effective treatment efforts require much more funding than that.

In the short term, Salsburg believes the best use of any additional money is to spend most of it on awareness and prevention. The rest could be used for studies to track the effectiveness of existing spending to make better decisions in the future.

More money is the only real solution, but some policymakers still hold the misconception that funding problem gambling treatment takes away from other programs. That view, Salsburg says, ignores “the massive uptick in revenue that is knocking at the door” thanks to legalized gambling.

Problem gambling is everyone’s concern

According to Salsburg, the biggest misconception about problem gambling in the US relates to who it affects. People are inclined to imagine a problem gambler as someone visibly impoverished, perhaps “buying scratch-offs at the gas station or sitting at a slot machine.”

The reality is that problem gambling can affect anyone of any age, race, gender or financial situation.

Young men in the early stages of successful careers are especially at risk. They can afford the habit, initially, and tend to be overconfident and prone to risky behaviors in general. They can also be adept at hiding their situation and giving off the appearance of being financially healthy until things finally reach a breaking point.

These misconceptions are a problem for two reasons.

First, they can lead friends and family to overlook concerning behavior on the grounds that the subject seems to be doing fine otherwise. The issue may consequently be swept under the rug until a lot of preventable damage has already been done.

Second, stereotyping problem gamblers makes it harder to empathize. Unfortunately, people are less inclined to take a problem seriously if they believe it predominantly affects groups other than their own.

Developing empathy for problem gamblers is, according to Salsburg, the most important tool.

“Really try to switch shoes and understand the issue from the view of the problem gambler,” he said. “Once people do that, I think the rest will take care of itself.”

Proactive approach is right for everyone

One challenge facing problem gambling awareness involves a fundamental conflict of interest. The entities in the best position to spread awareness are also the ones that would profit from an increase in gambling.

That includes the gambling companies themselves, of course, but it goes beyond them too. In the case of sports betting, for instance, leagues and media outlets have a lot of reach with potential bettors.

So far, Salsburg hasn’t seen those organizations doing much to help the situation.

Recklessly promoting the industry and forgoing responsible gambling messaging might bring a short-term financial reward, but it also comes with significant long-term risks.

A lesson from Australia

The Australian Football League should serve as a cautionary tale.

The Geelong Cats are among the teams that recently chose to end their gambling partnerships and cease related advertising at their events due to backlash over social problems stemming from years of willful ignorance. Companies taking a responsible approach from the start may avoid reaching such a point where drastic corrective measures become necessary.

Fortunately, the gambling industry itself seems at least somewhat aware of that. Salsburg says he sees “positive seeds being planted here and there.”

The American Gaming Association, for instance, just launched a new awareness campaign. DraftKings recently hired a Director of Responsible Gaming and became a Platinum member of the NCPG.

Within the sports world, the Portland Trail Blazers lived up to their name by becoming the first team to join the council.

The long road ahead for responsible gambling

While there’s much more work to be done, Salsburg doesn’t necessarily see the situation as “all gloom and doom.” He thinks the US can become a world leader in responsible gambling.

That will, however, require the industry, media and legislators to come together with redoubled efforts. Public pressure goes a long way toward shaping legislative and regulatory decisions.

Asked what we can do as individuals, Salsburg says that a lawmaker once told him: “When a lot of people show up with T-shirts, we have to pay attention.”

Mobilizing the public in that way begins on a personal level, informing oneself about the problem of gambling addiction and employing empathy for those who struggle.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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