As sports betting spikes, help for problem gamblers expands in some states

SINCE THE U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for legalized sports betting five years ago, nearly three-fourths of the states have moved swiftly to allow it though state funding for problem gambling services has not kept pace. / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO / WAYNE PARRY

NEW YORK (AP) – When the NFL season kicks off this week, Kentucky residents and visitors – for the first time – will be able to legally place sports bets on something other than horse racing. When they do, some of that money will also fund the state’s first-ever program for people with gambling problems.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for legalized sports betting five years ago, nearly three-fourths of the states have moved swiftly to allow it. State funding for problem gambling services has not kept pace, although more states — like Kentucky — are requiring at least a portion of sports wagering revenues to go toward helping addicted gamblers.

“The funding is starting to flow, but the amount is still clearly inadequate in most states,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. He added: “Most of these amounts are token.”

Legal sports betting operators took in $220 billion during the past five years, generating $3 billion in state and local taxes.

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By contrast, states spent an average of 38 cents per capita on problem gambling services in the 2022 fiscal year, ranging from nothing in nine states to $10.6 million in Massachusetts, according the Portland, Oregon-based consulting firm Problem Gambling Solutions Inc. That money, which came from all forms of gambling, went toward services such as telephone helplines, counseling and public awareness campaigns.

The federal government, which spends billions of dollars on substance abuse prevention and treatment, provides nothing for gambling problems.

Advocates in Kentucky, which has a rich horse racing history, had tried for decades to persuade lawmakers to fund services for people with gambling problems. There was no guarantee they would finally succeed when sports betting was proposed.

In fact, Republican state Rep. Michael Meredith did not originally include any funding for problem gambling in his legislation that legalized sports betting. Meredith told The Associated Press he would have preferred to first launch sports wagering, then come back in subsequent years with legislation earmarking problem-gambling funding from all types of betting, including horse racing.

But Meredith couldn’t rally enough support to pass the bill this year until a provision was added dedicating 2.5% of sports wagering taxes and licensing fees to a new problem gambling account, which also can be tapped for alcohol and drug addictions.

“We had folks that wanted to vote for sports wagering,” Meredith said. “But they were really reluctant to without some form of problem gambling money.”

Kentucky’s new fund is projected to receive about $575,000 in its first year.

That’s a decent start, but “we’ve only got five certified gambling counselors in the state right now, and we’re going to need probably five times that many to provide adequate geographic and demographic coverage,” said Michael R. Stone, executive director of the nonprofit Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling.

As of a year ago, 15 states and the District of Columbia had laws earmarking a portion of their sports betting revenues toward problem gambling services, but another 15 states did not. Since then, seven additional states have either launched sports betting or passed laws to do so, and all of those have required part of their sports betting revenues to go to problem gambling services, said Rachel Volberg, a research professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts-Amhurst.

Ohio, which launched sports betting on Jan. 1, requires 2% of the tax revenues to go to a “problem sports gaming fund.” The state law also requires all sports betting ads to include a phone number for a problem gambling helpline. Through the first seven months, calls to Ohio’s helpline were up about 150% compared to the same period a year ago.

The surge appears driven by a spike in sports betting marketing, though some callers had problems with other types of gambling or weren’t actually seeking help, said Derek Longmeier, executive director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio.

Research indicates that younger, higher educated men are among the most likely to bet on sports. Technology has raised the stakes for those with compulsive habits. In many states, people can now wager from anywhere with the tap of a smartphone app, 24 hours a day, betting not only on the winners of games but on a seemingly limitless series of events that occur during the games.

From a problem gambling standpoint, “I think it is more dangerous, because the accessibility is easier,” said Linda Graves, the recently retired executive director of the National Association of Administrators for Disordered Gambling Services.

Last month, attorneys general from several states gathered at a Connecticut casino for seminars focused on sports betting and online gaming. The widespread legalization of sports wagering has “added fuel” to a public health issue that “was already percolating under the surface,” problem gambling consultant Brianne Doura-Schawohl told the group.

Yet some governments have reduced funding for problem gambling services in recent years.

In May, the District of Columbia Council eliminated what had been an annual $200,000 allocation to the Department of Behavioral Health to prevent, treat and research gambling additions. Although the funding is required by a 2019 act that authorized sports wagering, the department apparently had not used the money. The department said support services for problem gamblers are available through other means.

In Mississippi, a long-standing $100,000 annual allotment to a compulsive gambling organization was eliminated in 2017 amid other state budget cuts. The next year, Mississippi launched sports betting in casinos and authorized a state lottery. Yet lawmakers continued to appropriate nothing for problem gambling until restoring $75,000 in the 2024 budget that began in July.

To remain afloat without state aid, the nonprofit Mississippi Council on Problem and Compulsive Gambling relied largely on donations from casinos. It dipped into reserves, cut in half the salaries of its two staff members, relocated to a smaller office, eliminated travel to conferences and suspended a program that provided several weeks of free counseling to people seeking to overcome gambling problems, said Executive Director Betty Greer.

Kansas also has a history of low funding for problem gambling. Although 2% of state-owned casino revenues are directed to an addictions services fund, only a fraction of that actually has gone to problem gambling. This past year, problem gambling services were allotted less than $60,000 while more than $7 million went to Medicaid mental health expenditures, substance abuse grants and other programs.

But that’s changing. The current Kansas budget allots more than $1 million for problem gambling efforts in response to sports betting. The state plans to study the prevalence of addiction because of sports betting and then use the findings to shape a statewide public awareness campaign.

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