After decades of gambling in Connecticut being limited to the state’s lottery and its two casinos, some advocates worry the impending legalization of sports betting and online gaming will lead to a corresponding increase in gambling addiction.
“If you live within 40 miles of a casino, the odds double that you’re going to have a problem with gambling,” said Diana Goode, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling. “Well, once all this legalization goes through, you have a casino in your house.”
Research has shown that those who bet online are particularly prone to addiction. A 2015 UMass survey of nearly 10,000 adults in Massachusetts found that 18.2% of people who gambled online could be classified as problem gamblers, compared to 4.4% of casino-goers.
The question for Connecticut, already home to an estimated 35,000 gambling addicts, will be how to prevent new gamblers from becoming addicted and how to treat those who inevitably develop problems.
The state’s recently passed legalization bill, which clears the way for online gaming and sports betting, requires licensed gaming providers to pay $500,000 annually to either the state or to a local nonprofit for problem gambling programs. Additionally, the Connecticut Lottery will be required to transfer $1 million in annual sports betting revenue to gambling addiction treatment programs, at least 5% of which must go to the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, a nonprofit based in Wethersfield.
The bill also requires that all gambling platforms include certain safeguards against problem gambling and “conspicuously display” information about responsible gaming.
Goode said she would have liked more funding, as well as a stronger self-exclusion provision, but that she was generally content with the bill. She said lawmakers had seemed to take problem gambling more seriously than they did when sports betting and online gaming first emerged as a high-profile legislative issue in 2019.
“Two years ago no one knew who we were; no one understood problem gambling,” Goode said. “I really think the legislators have taken us very seriously and treated us with a lot of respect, especially this year.”
Michele Mudrick isn’t so sure. Mudrick, who is part of a group that lobbies against all efforts to broaden legal gambling in Connecticut, said legislators have focused overwhelmingly on the possibility for new revenue, while overlooking “economic and social costs.”
“I don’t think they really realize the significance of this,” she said. “They’re just looking at the revenue. They’re saying the other states are doing it, we’ve got to do it, too.”
Rep. Ann Hughes, D-Easton, voted against the expanded gaming bill, arguing that its protections against problem gambling aren’t strong enough to prevent a wave of addiction.
“There are some modest consumer protections, but I think they’re really feeble in the overall scheme of what it’s trying to do,” said Hughes, a leader in the legislature’s Progressive Caucus. “Already more than 30% of [gambling] profits come from problem gamblers, but at least with the casinos and the slots you actually have to physically go there to spend that kind of money.”
Online gambling, she said, “is a huge risk.”
Others say it’s possible to address addiction even while expanding gambling in Connecticut. Sen. Cathy Osten, a Democrat whose district includes Foxwoods Resort Casino, is a proponent of sports betting and online gaming and also an advocate for funding problem gambling services.
“There are people who need help, and we should address that, but we should not walk away from [gambling],” Osten said, noting that Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are two of Connecticut’s largest employers.
Nevertheless, she said, “It’s important for us to recognize that with some of these activities that we do see different problems that happen, and so we need to make sure we’re dealing with those right up front.”
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