Pennsylvanians’ access to gambling opportunities grew for many years since the first casino opened in 2006 without much to indicate any commensurate increase in compulsive gambling problems.
Until 2020, that is, when the sharp increase in access to and use of online gambling options in the state was accompanied by a spike in problem gambling help line calls connected to new digital casinos and sports betting.
Help line calls logged by the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania did not go up overall — a fact believed to be tied to how COVID-19 shut down land-based gambling options for one-third of the year — but they soared for the newest forms of gaming.
The calls from individuals reporting problems primarily from internet forms of gambling increased 285% from 65 in 2019 to 250 in 2020.
From those describing sports betting as their primary problem, help line calls increased 66% from 41 to 68, the council’s figures show.
Josh Ercole, executive director of the nonprofit group focused on problem gambling education and training, said the numbers surrounding the types of gambling which were unavailable legally in the state before 2018 clearly stood out in reviewing 2020 data.
“There was a tremendous switch from what had traditionally been the most problematic types of gambling,” he told Penn Bets, with considerable reduction in calls from those too heavily attached to casino slots and table games.
Calls plunged in the spring, spiked in the fall
Pennsylvania is one of the few states in recent years to implement not just legal sports wagering, which was launched on a small basis in late 2018, but also sports betting’s online component and online casinos. The digital industry for both began in Pennsylvania in mid-2019 but vastly grew in 2020.
Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board data released last week showed that online casino revenue statewide grew to $565.8 million from 13 sites in 2020, compared to $33.6 million from five sites operating in part of 2019.
Pennsylvanians wagered $3.58 billion on sports last year, meanwhile, 91.6% of it from 12 online sites. Revenue – meaning the amount lost by bettors – was $189.7 million. In 2019, when only eight online sportsbooks were available and for just part of the year, $1.49 billion was wagered, with bettors’ losses of $84.1 million.
The problems created for some players by those online gambling activities stood out in a year when help-seeking calls to 1-800-GAMBLER and related sites from within Pennsylvania totaled 1,115 in 2020, which was actually down from 1,134 the year before.
Ercole noted that the COVID-19 impact on available gambling activities — other than over the internet — reduced calls in the spring to unusual lows, such as just 22 calls in March compared to 82 the year before.
But by the time both casinos and the major sports were back on track by August, calls surged. The help line calls from those seeking help totaled 600 from August-December, compared to 517 in that time frame in 2019.
Gambling without even getting out of bed
Some kind of increase had been anticipated from the nature of online gambling opportunities, Ercole said, but it was uncertain how much. Even though the new, more accessible types of 24/7 gambling were available in 2019, it takes time for problems to become evident and individuals to act on them.
The allure of online casinos is strong, Ercole acknowledged, and it has been a convenient entertainment option for many.
“It might not be the same feeling, the same smell, the same atmosphere and visuals as in a casino, but people now see that I can do this any time of day I want — I don’t even have to get out of bed in the morning — and I can change to any game I want without getting out of my seat. And I can do it without anyone knowing.”
For the 1-3% of the population thought to have trouble handling their gambling, a number have already discovered that kind of new availability is a problem, as opposed to the majority who can view it as a recreational benefit.
“A lot of the calls coming in are leaning toward the fact that it’s so accessible, and they’re using it as a coping mechanism, especially now to deal with the stress from COVID, which can be for 1,000 different reasons — whether job loss or the loss of loved ones or something else,” Ercole said.
“There’s a lot going on that causes people stress, and for some, unfortunately, they’re using this type of activity which has an element of risk associated with it as a coping mechanism.”
While there are responsible gambling tools on all of the websites and apps enabling customers to limit their time or money spent, Ercole noted that not everyone is aware of them, and once people are in an addictive stage it’s past the time when they are likely to make use of them.
Problems are showing up at younger ages
Tied to the increase in problems reported from internet and/or sports gambling was a change in the age of callers seeking help last year.
While calls from older individuals fell — again presumably due to months of casino closures — the number from those in the 25-to-34 age group increased from 183 in 2019 to last year’s 254. The 18-to-24 age group calls increased from 80 to 94.
Ercole said sports betting is known to hold more appeal among younger gamblers, who are also more inclined to go online for their recreation.
While no one diminishes the impact compulsive gambling issues can create for older individuals, there are heightened worries associated with a rise in problems among those in their 20s and 30s.
“The concern with younger folks is how this is going to telescope over the years,” Ercole noted. “Is this going to be something that slowly develops, continues, harms them for the rest of their life? Will it increase in intensity? … The repeated and consistent ability now to place these wagers is a concern, and for a younger person whose brain is not fully developed and doesn’t have a brake pedal to stop, that’s where you’re gong to see significant problems develop.”
New online counseling possibility is one plus
Pennsylvania dedicates several million dollars per year from gaming revenue to various efforts designed to prevent or treat problem gambling, with some of those funds supporting the help line and treatment counseling that callers may be directed to.
One COVID-related benefit that emerged in 2020, Ercole said, was Pennsylvania began funding tele-counseling of problem gamblers by certified therapists for the first time. Counselors concerned about the virus have cut back since March on in-office sessions, so having virtual therapy reimbursed benefited some of the 900 individuals who were given treatment referrals through the 1-800-GAMBLER staff.
Gauging what could be ahead in the way of problem gambling growth in 2021 is complicated, Ercole said, because it’s still uncertain just how much COVID has factored into gambling problems and how numbers will change if the pandemic is addressed successfully.
At the same time, Pennsylvania will have more brick-and-mortar casinos in 2021 than it did in 2020, and a fuller year of operations by the current number of online operators.
The most certain thing is that the 1,115 Pennsylvania calls to 1-800-GAMBLER tied to uncontrolled gambling last year were no indication of the true extent of the problem.
“There’s so much shame, stigma, control associated with this problem, and it’s difficult for a whole host of reasons for people to recognize they have a problem and to reach out,” Ercole said. “With regard to the number of people struggling with anything that is mental health addiction-related, you’re always going to have a small percentage who are actually seeking help.”