States that legalize online gambling see increases in problem gambling.
For example, calls to the Connecticut problem gambling helpline quadrupled after the legalization of online sports betting. Even so, the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling (CCPG) continued to rely on voluntary donations rather than public funds.
The CCPG’s $750,000 annual budget is higher than some states while it pales compared to others. Problem gambling investments range from millions of dollars in prevention, treatment, and research, to refusing to commit public funds to a silent, looming public health crisis.
The states that don’t invest public funds into problem gambling services face greater costs, elsewhere. Unaddressed gambling problems can make patients desperate, leading to crime to fund addictive gambling.
“It costs the state so much more to neglect problem gambling because they end up bearing the social costs, anyway,” Executive Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), Kieth Whyte said. “So it’s penny foolish and pound foolish. You’re not actually saving money.”
Let’s take a look at the sports betting states investing in problem gambling programs and those that commit no public funds to address this issue.
In July 2022, the NCPG released a survey it conducted in 2021 on problem gambling spending across the United States. The survey included a state-by-state breakdown of problem gambling spending and what it was used for. The problem gambling figures in this article came from ranking the states that have legalized sports betting by actual spend on problem gambling services as stated in the report’s state-by-state breakdown – not the money allocated to sports betting in legislative language.
Problem Gambling Funding: The Low Performers
Three states have failed to provide funding for problem gambling treatment and prevention with sports betting tax revenue:
This is not the same thing as failing to call for problem gambling funding in a sports betting bill. (An Arkansas amendment called for 200,000 per year for problem gambling prevention and treatment, but Arkansas never appropriated those funds.) It also doesn’t mean that nonprofits don’t receive funding. The National Council on Problem Gambling has chapters in these three states that receive donations, often from the gambling industry.
However, sports betting tax revenue isn’t increasing resources for problem gamblers in proportion to the accessibility of gambling. That shortfall leaves problem gamblers — and the loved ones affected by problem gambling — without intervention and treatment options.
When Arkansas legalized retail casinos and sports betting, it also promised $200,000 for problem gambling funding. However, legislators never appropriated the $200,000 to organizations that could use the money to fund problem gambling programs.
The Arkansas Racing Commission is being sued over this missing $200,000. Joe Denton brought the lawsuit in May 2022 in the hopes of securing the “only portion of Amendment 100 that hasn’t been fully implemented.”
That $200,000 used to come from unclaimed lottery prizes, but that program was gutted in 2015. Losing that money cost problem gamblers treatment and referral options – sometimes even mid-treatment.
A 2017 NCPG press release stated that after the 2015 funding was lost, “clients in counseling for gambling problems were unable to continue their therapy and the enrollment of new clients was halted. The state’s contract with a call center to handle Helpline calls from Arkansas was terminated early.”
Arkansas’ failure to appropriate sports betting funds for problem gambling programs is a continuation of the 2015 failure to provide basic resources for problem gamblers.
In 2016, the Mississippi Gaming Commission requested $100,000 to donate to the Mississippi Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling (MCPCG) in fiscal year 2017. 2017 was the last fiscal year that the Mississippi Gaming Commission transferred funds to the MCPCG.
Instead, the MCPCG receives voluntary donations from donors and the state’s casinos. The year that the MCPCG lost its state funding, the state casinos donated $150,000. Ever since, Mississippi has been happy to let voluntary donations foot the bill for problem gambling programs. But Mississippi is likely underestimating the cost of leaving problem gamblers untreated.
“The social costs of someone with a serious gambling problem is somewhere around $2,000 per year – that’s an average,” Whyte said. “And the vast majority of that cost is in criminal justice and healthcare costs. And guess who’s the payer of last resort for those costs? That would be the state of Mississippi itself.”
The NCPG report estimates 88,028 adults who are believed to manifest a gambling problem in Arkansas. If 75 of those adults had a serious gambling problem, the costs of their arrests and trials from attempts to fund their addictions and the costs of suicide attempts and treatment would reach the $150,000 that state’s casinos donated to the MCPCG in 2017.
Montana made headlines in July 2022 for not providing public funding for problem gambling services. It also doesn’t require gambling businesses to fund organizations that address problem gambling. Like the chapters in Arkansas and Mississippi, the Montana Council for Problem Gambling (MCPG) relies on private donations for funding.
In 2019, the MCPG earned about $220,000 in donations and spent $109,000 on problem gambling programs. That’s not enough to cover the needs of an entire state. Montana’s problem gambling helpline reroutes its calls to Delaware, which relieves some of the burden from Montana’s poorly funded problem gambling organizations.
Besides basic services like the helpline and public awareness, proactive steps like problem gambling research go underfunded in Montana. That creates a cycle of ignorance that may lead to what little funds are available being inefficiently spent.
“If you’re not even bothering to count the number of people with problems, much less who in that group is more likely to have a problem, it’s impossible to develop good public awareness and prevention services,” Keith Whyte said. “It’s impossible to know what your actual demand for treatment is.”
Problem Gambling Funding: States Leading the Way
As bleak as the finances are for Arkansas, Mississippi, and Montana, three sports betting states rise above the rest of the country in problem gambling funding:
Although they’re the top three, other major sports betting markets dedicate millions to problem gambling prevention and treatment, too. New York dedicates $6 million per year to problem gambling programs. Ohio allocated $4.4 million to its problem gambling fund in fiscal year 2021. However, Iowa, Illinois, and Pennsylvania remain the top spenders among the sports betting states.
Massachusetts was the highest problem gambling spender in fiscal year 2021. It spent about $9.2 million on problem gambling programs, including treatment, counselor training, and research. Per capita, Massachusetts’ $1.46 spend is second to Oregon’s.
The $9.2 million was split between two $4.6 million general fund transfers to two agencies: the Department of Public Health and the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. This approach funds the behavioral health impact of problem gambling and the awareness, treatment, and prevention techniques pioneered by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
Some of the programs that benefit from Massachusetts’ high investments are the PlayMyWay tool and GameSense. PlayMyWay is a budgeting tool created by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Its goal is to prevent problem gambling behaviors from manifesting in the first place.
PlayMyWay is part of the state’s larger GameSense program. GameSense is a responsible gaming program which is the first in the United States to make responsible gambling information centers and advisors mandatory on each of the state’s casino properties.
Among the sports betting states, Oregon is the highest spender per capita. Its $1.66 per capita spend comes from an investment in problem gambling that’s just over $7 million.
Oregon is also among the best problem gambling spenders in the United States. In 2022, the new Oregon Problem Gambling Research Center began requesting proposals for fruitful areas of responsible gambling research. Oregon is also notable for having problem gambling services available in every state county, making it one of the most accessible programs in the United States.
Finally, Oregon’s regional prevention programs address specific issues on the ground, including combining problem gambling awareness, prevention, and treatment with other public health issues, like alcohol use and mental health. This is one way to execute the delicate balance of leveraging existing public health resources without depriving problem gamblers of the treatments that best fit their needs.
As one of the northeast’s premier gambling markets, it’s no surprise to see Pennsylvania in the top three. In fiscal year 2021, Pennsylvania had spent just under $6.4 million on problem gambling services. 63% of that money goes to prevention and public awareness projects. Another 9% goes to treatment. The rest funds the state helpline, research, and other administrative functions.
Its per capita spending is much lower than the other high spenders at $0.49 spent on problem gambling per capita. However, the national average for problem gambling spending per capita is .40 cents. Pennsylvania still outperforms the national average easily. It also shows how chronically underfunded problem gambling programs are across the United States.
Pennsylvania is also the only state among the top three problem gambling spenders that offers online casinos. So, it’s especially important for Pennsylvania to invest in problem gambling services.
Pennsylvania has made important investments, including counselor training, prevention services, and public awareness in addition to a state helpline and treatment. Treatment options include choices for uninsured patients, Medicare recipients, and patients who can’t afford treatment on their own. It cements Pennsylvania not only as a competitive sports betting state but also as a proactive investor in problem gambling programs.
Regulatory Scrutiny over Problem Gambling?
The United States has a wide range of approaches to problem gambling funding. Some states leave problem gambling funding to private donations. Others bolster problem gambling resources with public funds.
The results speak for themselves. States like the top three spenders can afford their own problem gambling helplines while the bottom spenders have to rely on nonprofits to fund state helpline calls. In cases where problem gamblers are suicidal due to their financial losses and the toll on their loved ones and families, this lack of support can be lethal.
“Geography probably determines whether you live or not if you have a severe gambling problem,” Whyte said. “That’s how bad it is.”
Continued gaps in problem gambling funding could invite federal regulatory attention. It’s not fair that problem gamblers have access to different levels of care because of where they live.
The next administration that reaches the same conclusion and summons the political will to address that shortcoming could impose restrictions on the gambling industry to accompany funds for problem gambling.
Gambling industry lobbyists at US statehouses must decide how much longer they’re willing to risk a State Attorney General’s or federal regulator’s attention by allowing state governments to underfund problem gambling programs in the wake of a major expansion of internet gambling.