Many of the risk factors associated with problem gambling are “exacerbated” by the impact COVID-19 is having on society right now, a top problem gambling group said Wednesday.
The National Council on Problem Gambling, operating out of Washington, D.C., held a webinar on the impact the virus could be having on people who have issues with problem gambling, as well as the states that regulate the activity and provide some funding for prevention and treatment.
Keith Whyte, executive director since 1998 for the indispensable organization, said that people with gambling problems “may be experiencing disproportionate impacts” from the coronavirus crisis. Social isolation can increase the underlying risk factors that lead to problem gambling, he said.
“There’s hope and help available,” Whyte said. “That’s the most important message we can send.”
Resources for problem gambling help can be accessed via the NCPG’s website.
Problem gambling awareness month
COVID-19 struck during March, which is the group’s national problem gambling awareness month. Whyte said that call centers nationwide typically see about a 30% uptick in activity in March and that it’s too early to tell if more people have been reaching out for help via those channels thanks to the coronavirus crisis.
“We’re closely monitoring it,” Whyte said of the situation. “We’re predicting a spike, but we want to be careful at the moment” about making any predictions.
An estimated six million Americans have from some form of problematic gambling behavior.
Online gambling filling the void
Whyte cited some media reports that indicate there have been upticks in online gambling activity in the minority of states that regulate some form of online betting. It’s not clear, however, that increased online activity will lead to increased problem gambling rates.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said. “For some people, the casino closures may reduce their gambling spend. Not everyone is going to shift to online gambling. It’s not going to be a 1:1 shift. There are a lot of people who aren’t going to be heavy gamblers online.”
Regulated online gambling has safeguards that retail casino gambling does not have, but, on the other hand, the internet does pose an increased risk for some people thanks to the 24/7 remote access and the speed of play. Whyte mentioned offshore gambling sites, which are not regulated by state governments, as posing a risk to some Americans. The regulated U.S. online betting industry is still in its infancy.
Additionally, social casinos are unregulated and pose a greater risk to some people amid social distancing. Those platforms allow some free-play gambling, but they also offer purchases for further betting.
Funding for those at risk
Prior to the coronavirus crisis, sports betting legalization and regulation was sweeping the country thanks to the mid-2018 Supreme Court ruling. States have provided varying levels of additional funding for problem gambling, but generally it has been much less than what advocates think is needed.
Fifteen percent of states don’t have any form of problem gambling funding whatsoever.
According to the NCPG, problem gambling has a social cost of $17 billion annually.
Whyte said there’s some concern that the economic fallout of COVID-19 could have an adverse impact on the problem gambling funding that states already are providing.
It’s still too early to tell what impact this coronavirus will have on the casino gaming industry and the states that regulate it. The economic situation that many states are facing could also lead to increased motivation for legalizing and regulating online betting, Whyte also said.