Neva Pryor is worried.
Pryor, the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling in New Jersey, sees the wave of legal sports betting sweeping across her state. She worries about how the increased availability will affect vulnerable populations in the Garden State.
Last month, she expressed her concerns to a legislative committee:
“We know that our costs will soar, and we’re very concerned about that.”
New sports betting opportunities may mean new problems
She may be right. More availability for placing sports bets may have a noticeable effect on the humans in the area.
Nationally, most estimates place the prevalence of gambling addiction at about 3 percent of the US population. Roughly 10 million Americans report suffering from the debilitating condition.
However, those numbers represent a time prior to widespread sports betting. Those 10 million poor souls often had to traverse great distances to feed their addictions, and the sheer inconvenience likely persuaded others not to indulge.
Now, it won’t be so inconvenient. People who merely wished they could bet sports will be able to do so.
Increased availability will also mean increased advertising to vulnerable populations. At least one Australian study has found marketing to be a contributing factor to the enhancement of gambling addiction symptoms.
Sports betting doesn’t have the same societal impact as gambling
We may also see an uptick in compulsive gambling because of how Americans view sports betting. The country is in a time of tremendous social upheaval, and once-taboo elements like marijuana, tattoos, and gambling are becoming much more acceptable.
The growth of social media and reality television has shown people engaging in these behaviors without ill effects. So, gambling, once relegated to dark, smoky backrooms, is now a legitimate industry with corporate sponsors and major cable network coverage.
Worse, sports betting doesn’t even occupy the same societal space as gambling. People who would never enter a casino don’t bat an eye at throwing down a few bucks on a game.
We know that sports betting is in a different arena based upon some of the sheer numbers surrounding it. Gaming research firm Eilers and Krejcik estimates that by 2023, the US market for sports betting will be in the neighborhood of $6 billion annually.
Some of that $6 billion will certainly come from people with a problem.
Legalization doesn’t always mean an outbreak
That said, widely-legal sports betting doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a surge of new cases. If recent experiences with legalizing marijuana are any clue, the bigger danger will be for the already addicted.
Oregon legalized recreational marijuana use in 2015. Last year, the Society for the Study of Addiction published a study of Oregon college students and their use of the drug.
The findings were somewhat surprising. Use of recreational marijuana among student did increase, but only in students that reported a tendency to binge drink.
Usage rates for other students only increased for those under 21. So, students with ready, legal access to the drug who were not already using were unlikely to do so.
The findings mirrored studies in Colorado and Washington. Those studies found that older adolescents, like high school seniors, similarly did not increase their usage after legalization.
The only populations that did see an increase were younger Washington students – those in 8th or 10th grades. Colorado did not even see a similar uptick in the younger group.
The main solution may simply be vigilance
All of that is to say that it’s not a given that there will be more gambling addicts in states that legalize sports betting. However, the depth of current addictions may increase.
As a result, government agencies and non-profit organizations need to stay on alert. Governments may also want to implement requirements for employees that work in sportsbooks.
There are already legal precedents for imposing a duty upon service providers. Thirty-eight states have “dram shop” laws that require bartenders and other bar personnel to stop serving people who are obviously drunk.
Perhaps casinos, racetracks, and sportsbooks would benefit from a similar situation. On the other hand, a gambling addict could merely move to a different location if he was denied service, and it’s not nearly as obvious as someone who is drunk.
Nevertheless, there does need to be an ongoing conversation in each state that legalizes sports betting. Otherwise, many good people may go down a very dark hole.