The Massachusetts legislature recently passed a law that effectively legalizes sports betting in the state. While it is sure to generate quite a bit of profit, many other aspects are still evolving, especially those regarding gambling addiction. About 2.6% of the adult population in the United States has a serious gambling problem, and it is estimated that over 80% of people with some type of gambling addiction never seek treatment.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, joined Arun Rath on GBH’s All things Considered to outline the implications of the recently passed law, as well as options for how to treat gambling addiction. The following is a slightly edited transcript.
Arun Rat: So before we talk about the law in Massachusetts, I almost feel like the debate about it is more about how the law is going to be enforced – and there didn’t seem to be a lot of conversation about the people with problem gambling. and how they would be affected by it. Can you give us a general idea for people who have gambling problems, what it will mean for them in Massachusetts to have legalized sports betting?
Keith Whyte: Sure. And I think a lot of those conversations were happening behind the scenes, and certainly at the legislative level. Lawmakers have taken great interest in measures to prevent addiction and mitigate the impact of legalized sports betting. And one of the reasons that this conversation was able to take place there is the exemplary work that the Massachusetts Council of Gaming Health has done around the [new] casino laws. Massachusetts is in a better position to deal with the expansion of sports betting than probably any other state because of the work that has been done over the last six or seven years on casinos.
Rat : And I want to talk a bit more about that – well, help us out with the terminology first. There’s this thing called “self-exclusion.” Tell us what it is, how it works with the law and how it helps people facing it?
Why : Well, voluntary self-exclusion is a great concept in that it allows someone to say, “I have a gambling problem and I’m making this deal with the gambling operator, a casino, a bookie, and in some cases even the lottery And what I would like you to do is keep me out of your house, make every reasonable effort to prevent me from continuing to play And if I am caught , so escort me off the property and hopefully to treatment.
And so these self-exclusion programs are powerful because they are self-initiated. He is someone who takes responsibility for his problem, but also asks those who benefit most from the game to share this responsibility.
Rat : And is this something that has worked in other states? And talk about how it has worked so far in Massachusetts.
Why : I think there are real concerns about how self-exclusion works. In some cases, this can put too much responsibility on a person who may have an out-of-control gambling problem. In some cases, this may very well let the operators off the hook — because, again, they place a heavy burden on the individual. We know that in a jurisdiction like Massachusetts, where there are many options just across the border, as well as illegal offshore gambling websites, this self-exclusion – which is often specific to the State – has some shortcomings.
But perhaps most importantly, people who self-exclude should have problem gambling treatment available, accessible and affordable. And while that’s the case in Massachusetts, it’s not the case in surrounding jurisdictions, let alone nationwide. So you really need to have a strong and comprehensive program of problem gambling services for self-exclusion to be effective.
Rat : And talk a bit more because the details, I believe, are still being worked out. I don’t think there will be sports betting until the end of this year, maybe early next year. What would be the ideal way for it to be achieved in Massachusetts once sports betting is legal?
“We may be able to create an even better safety net for people with gambling problems by using this technology that the gaming industry has embraced.”
Keith Whyte, Executive Director of the National Problem Gambling Council
Why : Sports betting technology is such that it can have a lot of negative effects, obviously. You know, it’s highly available. It’s on your phone. It’s 24/7. It’s quick. But that same technology can also be used to do things like have a self-exclusion list, maybe, statewide that’s tied to your phone, it’s tied to your credit card that is shared by all carriers in Massachusetts. And so, you know, with a single-database approach, if you want, you could voluntarily opt out once, and that information could be shared but protected by all of the gaming operators in Massachusetts. So it creates more of a safety net with fewer gaps.
This technology can also provide reminders. We’ve even seen apps where the warning will go off if you approach a casino you’ve been kicked out of. So you know, it’s a game of cat and mouse with technology. Technology can increase problem gambling, but it can also provide better prevention and treatment services. It depends on how the state gaming commission in the state, you know, responsible gambling efforts they need. It depends on the Ministry of Health to ensure that treatment is available. So there are a lot of stakeholders in this area, but by working together we may be able to create an even better safety net for people with gambling problems using this technology that the gaming industry has embraced.
Rat : In Michigan, where sports betting is legal, their self-barring is for two years – before it is a lifetime ban. Can you talk about how you determine what’s right, what’s too hard, what’s the right length?
Why : Well, you have touched on one of the central questions of self-exclusion. There’s not a lot of research to tell us which is more salient – one year, versus two years. Is it different from five years? Many jurisdictions offer life. Some jurisdictions only offer lifetime, which we think is too expensive. We believe this discourages people with gambling problems from seeking help. So this is partly a call for more research, but part of it is a call to say that if you have a serious gambling problem, getting on the self-exclusion list gives you time to sit in a calm state of mind, then decide to move forward: what is the best option for you?
So, yeah, we’re not sure exactly what the best list of options to give outcasts is, but it’s probably a one year option, probably in the medium term, five years and there should be a lifetime option. Because for some people it’s a chronic condition that never heals, you’re just recovering. And we need to honor that, those who feel that way, and make sure that if they forbid themselves, they can do it for life.
Rat : We’re talking about so many people, but for the majority of people we mentioned at the top of this article – that most people don’t seek help with when faced with serious gambling problems – What about people who are unable to seek help with self-exclusion? What are your fears about what might happen to them once this is released or what can you do to help them?
Why : We certainly believe that young men, especially young men with higher education and higher incomes, are much more likely to bet on sports and much more likely to develop problems with betting on sports.
Their family members, their employers, their friends. Compulsive gambling is an addiction, just like drug addiction, where it is not only the individual who suffers the negative effects. It affects 17 to 25 members of their family and community. And the substance compulsive gamblers abuse, if you will, is money. And so you can have people who have lost millions and millions of dollars, who have embezzled and stolen to feed their addiction. So it can be a devastating disorder. And these impacts ripple through the community and society as a whole.
Massachusetts must therefore continue to weigh the costs/benefits of gambling expansion carefully and spend as much money to mitigate possible increases against the issues operators are making for promotion and marketing.
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