Over the last four decades many changes have taken place in the world of gambling. When I grew up, Nevada was the place to go to gamble, followed by Atlantic City. Throngs of visitors would pay a visit to those select casinos to place a wager, see famous performers, eat delicious and inexpensive food, and hope that they might get lucky with the pull of a slot handle or roll of the dice. In the years to follow, other states recognized the revenue generating benefits of gambling and today most states have made it legal.
In 2013 New Jersey legalized online gambling, followed by sports betting in 2018; and, like casino gambling, many other states followed suit. People were now able to place wagers from their computers in the comfort of their home or via mobile phones. State legislatures and governments supported legalization, drawn by the prospect of additional tax revenue.
Gambling companies took advantage of this new market and created an array of new gambling platforms promoted through aggressive advertising campaigns, and millions of people responded hoping for a big win. A Barrons Magazine report illustrated the tremendous volume of advertising: in 2020 gambling television ads totaled $292 million. In 2021, the amount totaled $725 million; Nearly 2 ½ times more than the prior year. Unfortunately, these repetitive messages increase the likelihood of viewers to potentially develop a gambling problem and can be an accelerator for individuals to relapse and break their gambling sobriety.
Given the explosion of gambling opportunities and excessive advertising, more and more individuals are struggling with gambling problems, affecting occupations, families, and lives. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 1 percent of the general US adult (18+) population, over 2 million people, experience a gambling disorder every year; another 4-6 million (2-3 percent) are considered to have mild or moderate gambling problems. A study performed by New Jersey’s Rutgers University identified that, in New Jersey, 6.3 percent are dealing with this addiction. No doubt the higher percentage in New Jersey correlates to the abundance of gambling opportunities and advertising. While this information is helpful, it is challenging to specifically identify just how many people are affected by problem gambling, since most victims are too ashamed to seek help and since, unlike drugs or alcohol, it is a “hidden addiction” which is only recognized when people have lost their jobs, bank accounts and relationships.
Enter “Responsible Gaming” (RG) programs created to establish and maintain a safe environment to help recreational bettors from wagering more than they can afford and to minimize the risk of developing a gambling addiction. While RG programs may provide helpful guidelines, their effectiveness is questionable as the number of problem gamblers continues to grow—helpline calls at 800GAMBLER in New Jersey increased by over 288 percent since sports betting was legalized in 2018—and subsequent lawsuits have been filed by patrons claiming operators contributed to their gambling addiction. But who is responsible to help individuals avoid a gambling problem and What is missing from current RG efforts? That is to say, “what is the elephant in the room”?
Operators are responsible since the content of their advertisements glamorize gambling and do not mention its addictive nature, outside of including an 800 number to call if one suspects they have a gambling problem, which is a statutory requirement in New Jersey. The ads encourage people to gamble by delivering enticing offers and a “you can’t lose” message with repetition and frequency. While it is commendable that several operators established their own RG programs, “bettor beware” messages are subtle, with no reference made to the “dark side” of gambling and the profound consequences of this addiction.
It is challenging, however, to institute and enforce marketing restrictions upon operators since our current environment increasingly supports commercial free speech and since related policies may negatively affect their bottom line.
Lawmakers and government officials are responsible, but it appears that the reliance on related tax revenue supersedes public interest. According to a 2021 Survey of Publicly Funded Problem Gambling Services in the United States New Jersey ranks number three in the country for gross gaming revenue but drops to number 19 of the 42 states that allocate funds to problem gambling treatment and prevention. In 2021, New Jersey collected over $486 million in taxes from its casinos, reflecting $52 collected for each resident, yet a mere 34 cents, under 1 percent, has been dedicated to problem gambling. Since sports book was legalized in New Jersey in 2018, not one penny of related tax revenue has been allocated to The Council of Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, while the federal government has yet to identify any funding for treatment and prevention and continues to ignore the need.
Recently, the NJ Attorney General and Division of Gaming Enforcement established Gaming Advertising Best Practices for NJ operators, which is a step in the right direction. But there must be a greater awareness about the serious destruction problem gambling can cause and the toll it takes on our society.
Lastly, Patrons are responsible for the amount of time spent gambling and the wagers they elect to place. Patrons cannot rely on operators to cover their losses or governments to entirely protect them from gambling-related harm and must take responsibility for their gambling play, which is the intent of RG standards.
While state problem gambling councils, like the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, are diligent to educate citizens about the addictive nature of gambling, it is a mammoth effort for non-profit organizations with extremely limited funds to attempt to compete with multi-million-dollar operator campaigns encouraging people to gamble. And while RG efforts are helpful, I have yet to see any communication focusing on the severity of gambling addiction if RG parameters are not followed. How effective can a “bettor beware” message be without knowing what we should beware of and why we should avoid it?
Most don’t see the elderly woman working for minimum wage because she lost her $400,000 nest egg playing online to escape from the pain of losing her husband, the father who wagered the entirety of his son’s college fund he painstakingly saved for years, or the woman who was afraid to tell her abusive husband she lost all of their savings. These are only a few scenarios out of thousands of stories that are occurring every day. If we sincerely want to prevent problem gambling it is critical to educate the public about its severity, which usually leads to devastating, life altering circumstances.
Greater awareness can be achieved via government sponsored public service announcements (PSAs), like those for drug addiction, and by posting warning labels, similar to the Surgeon General’s warning on tobacco products, at brick-and-mortar casinos and online gambling sites. It is also important to incorporate gambling prevention/addiction education in school curriculums for our young people, to establish an awareness of related harms at an early age. Efforts like these would reach more people and help to effectively address this growing addiction in our country. And for those who develop a gambling disorder, more funding is desperately needed for treatment.
Every year millions of people experience negative, life altering events because of a gambling problem, but even more alarming is that it is life threatening: approximately 20 percent of disordered gamblers contemplate suicide—the highest rate among all addictions. No doubt this statistic reflects the need to prioritize the public good and for all of us to take responsibility to prevent problem gambling beyond current RG messages. Such efforts will fall short if we don’t address the “Elephant in the Room”—the severe detrimental consequences of this disorder experienced by unsuspecting bettors every year.
Felicia Grondin, MPA, is Executive Director for the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, Inc.