With the introduction of online casinos and sports betting in Pennsylvania, the quantity of contacts with the helpline for problem gambling have more than doubled.
Josh Ercole, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of PA (CCGP), told PlayUSA that a rise in calls isn’t entirely negative.
From 2019 to 2021, the annual call volume rose from 11,011 to 17,380 but fell to 14,146 in 2022. But not every caller sought assistance. They called for other reasons. Or just hung up when someone answered.
In 2022, the number of calls for help—also known as intakes— rose. Last year, 2,621 gamblers obtained help through the 1-800 number, more than double the average of 1,100 before online casinos.
Ercole told PlayUSA that regulated gambling expansion impacts call volume in two ways:
“…People try a new game out. It’s trendy, it’s fun, and before long they develop issues with it. But the awareness piece is also something to consider. We’ve doubled our intake call volume from two years ago. I think it’s likely that a part of that is increased awareness of the helpline and of services that are available.”
Ercole says the increase in calls does not mean a corresponding increase in problem gamblers. “I think the real number is likely a fraction of that.”
The CCGP has collected data on helpline calls since 2007. That should come as no surprise. That year marked the introduction of retail slots in the state. Table games joined the casino world in 2010, and again no surprise call volume peaked upwards to more than 21,000 in 2009 and continued the rise until 2012 before subsiding.
Again, stating the obvious: Both spikes coincide with easier access to new forms of gambling and greater awareness of problem gaming services. The same effect showed up with the introduction of online casino and sports betting.
“When there’s new availability, that’s when we typically see an annual spike. When retail casinos first arrived, it was kind of similar to what we saw a couple of years ago with online casinos and sports betting first arriving,” Ercole said.
During other times when the state did not introduce anything new, a reduction in messaging may have had an effect on the call volume in spite of outreach and awareness efforts.
The call intake rate, which reached a high of 20 percent in 2022, included hang-ups and people calling for information about the lottery or casinos. At the same time, the number of appropriate calls rose.
Ercole postulated why:
- Efforts to clarify the messaging around the helpline’s purpose.
- The increased social media presence during the pandemic
- Decreasing stigma around gambling addiction, meaning more people willing to seek help.
- The growing popularity of text message and internet chat options.
2020 was marked by important differences:
- The “always there” nature of online gaming
- A demographic shift, with more young people and men playing.
- Covid-19 pandemic keeping people in their homes.
- The closure of retail casinos resulted in a drop of intakes.
Ercole told PlayUSA:
“When we look at the data collectively, we have to look at what’s most accessible and by far the online options are far more accessible than anything we’ve seen before,” Ercole said. “People are now able to play at a very high frequency, and that’s where we see some of these problems start.”
The number of calls for sports betting or online gambling leaped tenfold, thanks to the impact of messaging. Calls revealed an increase of young male callers. Attracted by online gambling, these demographics had little retail casino presence.
With the pandemic and the closure of retail casinos, the calls reflected a wider audience.
“Six to eight months after the introduction of online gambling, the pandemic struck,” Ercole said. “Now you have new, younger players but also all these existing retail casino patrons who now can’t go because of the shutdown. So they’re logging on. And you have other people who are now out of work, bored, scared, isolated, or whatever, and they’re looking for something to fill their time.”
More importantly, age might be affecting what other sorts of problems callers report.
Most callers sought help because of finances. Yet the number reporting money as the primary factor declined since the pandemic.
In fact, better finances can sometimes let a gambler sink further into addiction before recognizing that they have a problem.
Other issues include mental health, substance abuse and the effect on family and other relationships. CCGP helpline staff also ask callers about other problems they’re experiencing, even if they weren’t a factor in their decision to seek help.
“There have been a lot of studies done over the years that highlight the high rates of co-occurring situations, and that’s why we collect some of that information,” Ercole said.
Overspending remains a common secondary problem, but one declining since before the pandemic.
One-third of callers now say they suffer from depression and the number admitting to other addictions or compulsive behaviors has nearly doubled. Those categories consist of:
- Other drug problems
- Eating disorders
- Sex addiction
“There are many people out there struggling with gambling because of other things that caused them to start to gamble. Depression, anxiety, not knowing what to do…then they just push a button and suddenly they’re not thinking about any of that amid all the lights, bells, and whistles.”
Many of these problems impact younger people more than other age groups. Younger generations are also more inclined to talk about such issues.
But among older people, overspending can be more of a concern, Ercole said. Online casinos will be a game-changer.
Therefore, despite past experience with the introduction of retail casinos, he doesn’t think calls and intakes will ever go all the way back to their prior level now that online gambling is here. He does, however, expect them to subside somewhat from their current highs.
Because the intake rate is rising so sharply, the total number of people seeking help may still continue to increase for another year or two.
The calendar seems to have a major impact. Just about the entire increase in 2022 occurred between January and April, during which the number of intakes rose 40 percent. The remaining three quarters of a year were closer to level.
Is there another way, a possible alternative to or addition to helpline.
According to a survey by the National Association of Administrators for Disordered Gambling Services, public money for substance abuse treatment is almost 340 times greater than what goes into gambling treatment programs.
“Alcohol is a good model. You have to have community-based education prevention when you’re young so by the time the bartender cuts you off, that’s not the first time anyone has talked to you about your alcohol use,” said Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
A Denmark company, Mindway AI may be able to close the gap.
Mindway AI’s technology is in use in Europe and Asia but not much in the U.S.
“You and I are two different individual human beings and so is our behavior, and when it comes to gambling, definitely our behavior would be different and individual,” Rasmus Kjaergaard, Mindway AI’s CEO, told Scripps.
The AI program learns a problem gambler’s playing style, how much he or she bets and on which games, along with length of play. , which games you like to play and how long you typically gamble. Armed with that data, the program can notice signs of problem gambling like chasing losses. It can ask if the gambler is OK.
New Jersey became the first state to require gaming operators to use similar technology like this in gambling apps and online casinos.
“This is not a silver bullet yet and we may not know for a few more years whether it will be,” says Alan Feldman, a former gaming executive who now studies responsible gaming at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, per Scripps.
His team is studying how problem gamblers handle money in non-gaming situations, analyzing anonymous financial data to create an algorithm.
“The question remains: “So what?” Feldman says. “What’s the distinction between someone who might need a little tap on the shoulder and say hey you might want to slow down here and someone you need to pull off the system and encourage them to go get treatment?”