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Costly consequences

Carolyn Hawley column: In Virginia, with gambling expansion comes responsibility

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Rosie’s Gaming Emporium, which features 700 slots-like historical horse racing games as well as simulcast horse racing, opened its Richmond location in July 2019.

Casinos in five cities across the commonwealth, sports betting, an online lottery, video lottery terminals in bars and restaurants and more historical horse racing machines. The General Assembly is considering drastic changes to Virginia’s once-conservative gambling landscape.

As the recent Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission gaming study outlined, gambling disorder already is an issue in Virginia. What is gambling disorder? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is a behavioral addiction involving repeated problematic gambling behavior that causes significant problems or distress.

The symptoms are similar to those experienced by people addicted to alcohol or drugs and include increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, “chasing” losses, and loss of control manifested by the continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, negative consequences. In extreme cases, problem gambling can result in financial ruin, legal problems, loss of career and family, or even suicide.

As gambling opportunities increase, more people will be at risk of experiencing problems. Problem gambling prevention and treatment efforts are nearly nonexistent in Virginia. If more gambling is approved by the General Assembly, all stakeholders will need to become engaged in a comprehensive problem gambling prevention and mitigation program.

An effective plan would require collaboration among state agencies, gaming operators, medical and mental health professionals, health systems, state and local law enforcement, K-12 educators, higher education and the insurance industry.

A robust program also would include research that is Virginia-specific. We only have evidence from other states that an estimated 5% to 10% of adults might have a gambling problem. We need to better educate adults and kids about the risks of gambling. Responsible gaming practices by gaming operators will be critical. Such efforts would include responsible advertising, rules about hours and alcohol on gambling premises, offering gamblers the opportunity to exclude themselves from a specific type of game and more.

Last and perhaps most important, we must provide support to Virginians in crisis through treatment and recovery. Such programs have existed in Virginia for substance use for quite a while. In the U.S., substance use disorders are about 3.8 times more common than gambling disorders, while public funding for substance abuse treatment is about 334 times greater than public funding for all problem gambling services ($24.4 billion versus $73 million, respectively). Unfortunately, there are fewer than 10 certified gambling addiction clinicians in the state.

The Virginia Council on Problem Gambling maintains a neutral stance on gambling. It operates the state’s Problem Gambling Helpline. It offers a phone number, live chat and text support at 1-888-532-3500. This helpline is the only mandated requirement in the Virginia Constitution, and it is funded by the Virginia Lottery.

In 2019, legal gambling in the state included lottery tickets, fantasy sports, charitable games like bingo and pull-tabs, and Virginians traveled to nearby casinos like the MGM National Harbor Casino in Maryland and the Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, W. Va.

The helpline received an average of 82 calls per month last year from gamblers or their concerned family members or friends. The majority of callers mentioned a problem with casino slots, followed by casino table games. Video skill games recently installed in Virginia bars, restaurants and stores saw an uptick in the data last year.

There are bills before lawmakers that include a formal Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Fund. Legislators should carefully consider the risks of gambling expansion as they dedicate funding to support this new era of gambling in the commonwealth. Virginia’s current and new gambling operations need to support the fund financially, as well as with their own responsible gaming practices.

Starting off by building the right culture to manage risk should include solid rules and regulations. New and existing employees on gaming staffs and at gaming venues should be fully trained on the dangers of problem gambling. Not surprisingly, research shows that workers in a gambling environment can be more susceptible to the temptations of the activity.

Expanded gambling in Virginia can generate fruitful revenues for important causes. Let’s not forget about the unintended and costly consequences that these new legal games of chance and skill might bring to our most vulnerable citizens, even if they don’t yet have a gambling problem.

Dr. Carolyn Hawley is president of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling. Contact her at: cehawley@vcu.edu

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