As mobile sports wagering explodes in NY, bet on this: a spike in problem gambling

Syracuse, NY – Talk of mobile sports betting is everywhere.

On television. On radio. On the sides of buses. On websites like this one.

But also in health clinics. In non-profit offices. In support groups in church basements.

The advertising blitz across New York since the legalization of mobile sports betting has been effective, generating record amounts of new customers, wagers and tax revenues.

It has also left those devoted to helping those with gambling problems preparing for their own blitz: a record number of people who will eventually need help battling addiction.

“I’ve been in the addiction field since 1987,” said Jim Maney, the executive director for the New York Council on Problem Gambling. “We didn’t see the crack cocaine crises coming back in the day. We didn’t see the AIDS crisis coming. We didn’t even see the opioid crisis coming, and now we have to deal with that. This?

“We can see this coming.”

Maney compared the current promotional offers and flooded advertising market to cigarette and alcohol manufacturers flooding the airwaves and handing out free samples to build their future customer base.

The modern twist comes via cell phones, which allow businesses to push their product right into the living room of gamblers, 24 hours a day.

While most who gamble will do so responsibly, a percentage will inevitably turn into problem gamblers.

The group will go on to pay the cost for what recovery experts label “the hidden addiction.”

“Problem gambling is really challenging because there are many people that do it in a healthy way for health and leisure and for recreation,” said Jeremy Klemanski, the president and CEO of Helio Health, a mental health and addiction treatment organization in Syracuse. “It can be hard to tell when you’ve crossed the threshold.”

A survey of New Yorkers compiled by New York’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports estimated that 4.3% of New Yorkers have a problem with gambling, while the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 2-3% of the United States population has some sort of problem in a given year.

The American Psychiatric Association, which uses a more conservative definition, estimates that approximately 1% of the country has a gambling problem.

Problem gambling falls along a spectrum, ranging from a habit so powerful that it becomes compulsive to one that causes more subtle problems like reducing the amount of joy found in other activities and distracting from job performance.

While the percentage of gamblers who will develop a problem is small, the population pool is enormous, and the barrage of advertisements and marketing show just how intent mobile sportsbooks are on expanding it.

In New York alone, more than 1.76 million new accounts at mobile sportsbooks have been created since mobile sports betting was legalized just over two months ago.

During that time, calls to the state’s problem gambling hotline increased from 198 last January to 289 this year and from 170 calls last February to 239 last month, according to OASAS.

Other states where mobile sports betting has been legalized, like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have seen similar patterns in increased hotline use.

Thanks largely to loosened regulations and diminished taboos, the amount of money legally wagered on sports increased 164% across the United States in 2021, according to the American Gaming Association. The organization said that $ 57.2 billion was bet at commercial sportsbooks last year, an increase spurred by legalization and online consumption.

The addition of New York means that number will only grow larger. In just over two months, New York bettors have wagered just under $ 4 billion through their mobile devices.

“With the expansion we know that people are going to be curious,” said Elizabeth Toomey, a team leader with the New York Council on Problem Gambling’s Central Region. “We know they are going to have more access. And we know that with more access comes more vulnerability. “

Sports betting has been a common topic in local Gamblers Anonymous meetings the past two months, according to Joyce B., a Gamblers Anonymous member in Central New York who chairs a regular local meeting.

She asked to be identified only by her first name and last initial to comply with Gamblers Anonymous policy.

Some attendees, she said, have told stories of relapses, triggered by the bombardment of ads. Some attendees who struggle with other forms of gambling have dabbled in sports betting, drawn in by the promotional deals and hoping that this version will be something they can control.

“It’s been much harder for those that are sports gamblers,” Joyce said. “I know of a couple relapses. Mostly it has been a lot of people talking about how hard this has been for them mentally. They’ve talked a lot about the ads on TV. They drive you nuts. I wasn’t a sports gambler and they drive me nuts. I feel bad for the sports gamblers right now. “

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, data shows that sports bettors are twice as likely as people who gamble in other ways to develop a gambling problem. Another study cited by the organization indicates individuals who bet virtually are more likely to engage in problem gambling.

Mobile sports betting combines both of those elements, lowering the barriers that have traditionally been in place to slow problem gambling.

Individuals who once needed to travel to a casino or contact a bookie to place a bet can now get the same rush of dopamine and serotonin (the same chemicals that make using cocaine pleasurable) at the click of a button in their homes.

They can do it more frequently, building cravings for those chemicals that the body will become driven to fill.

Klemanski said that for some people gambling can become more physically gratifying than sex or eating delicious food.

Many who struggle with problem gambling will be members of already-vulnerable populations.

Research conducted at the University of Connecticut in 2005 showed that among people who identified themselves as having a gambling disorder, many had other mental health concerns. The study found that 60% had a personality disorder, 50% had a mood disorder and 41% had an anxiety disorder.

Addictions often overlap. Studies have measured strong connections between gambling addiction and alcohol problems, nicotine addiction and drug disorders.

The physical nature of the addiction means some people are genetically more susceptible to problem gambling than others.

Maney said that the demographics highly targeted by mobile sports betting – young men between 21 and 35 – are more impulsive and less likely to have family members or partners around them to intervene and force them to seek help.

Both Joyce and Toomey said they believe there has been a small uptick in people seeking help locally over the past two months.

Klemanski said he has not seen a change at his practice. Helio treats somewhere between dozens and 100 individuals for problem gambling each year. Most show up looking for treatment for issues such as substance abuse or mental health concerns, revealing gambling problems over the course of that treatment.

Most, however, won’t seek professional help.

The American Psychiatric Association Association believes just 1 in 10 people with a gambling problem typically seek treatment.

Klemanski said he believes the growing problem will probably reveal itself in more troubling statistics than individuals seeking treatment.

“We’ll probably see it manifest as an increase in suicide, to be candid,” he said. “Of all the addictive disorders, gambling has the highest, or one of the highest, instances of suicide rate. New York is the largest population that has legalized online sports betting. Based on the statistics on substance abuse, mental health and suicide, I think we should expect to see an increase in all of those things. “

Joyce said she hears the desperation that causes those suicides regularly during Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

“You end up feeling like your family would be better off without you,” Joyce said.

Family members, experts said, also have a more difficult time coaxing individuals with a gambling problem to get help than other addictions.

There are no car accidents, arrests or overdoses to force people into treatment. It’s harder to accept the physical component of gambling compared to substances you ingest or inject. With mobile betting even traditional signs – skipping work or being distracted or absent during family occasions – will be more difficult to pick up on.

In order to keep their addiction hidden, gamblers will go as far as signing up for post office boxes to hide bills from family members and signing up for multiple credit cards, maxing out each one before signing on with another company, Joyce said.

“You’re just going to go until you fall,” Joyce said.

The experts said there are a variety of things to monitor to try to determine if someone has a gambling problem or if they are at risk of developing one.

Potential signs include someone feeling like they are missing out when they don’t have a bet placed, passing up other activities in order to gamble, placing large bets to compensate for ones that individuals have lost and needing to take bigger risks in order to feel the same level of excitement.

Bigger issues include individuals gambling with money they should be spending on necessities, hiding gambling activity from loved ones and gambling to the point that it causes financial strain or relationship troubles.

“It’s going to take a while for the losses to pile up,” Maney said. “Gambling is a different animal than alcohol or drugs. For gamblers there’s no reason to seek treatment until they hit rock bottom, and bottom means a lot of things. As long as you can get money, you haven’t hit it. If you’re an alcoholic, your next drink isn’t going to help you. But in the gambling mind, you have to continue. Your next bet is the answer. And then that cycle never ends. “

Syracuse.com will cover New York’s legalization of mobile sports betting and its impact on Central New Yorkers. If you, or someone you know, has struggled with sports betting and is willing to share their personal experience, please contact Chris Carlson at ccarlson@syracuse.com.

The New York Problem Gambling Resource Center’s Central Region can be reached at (315) 413-4676, while New York state’s help hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-877-8-HOPENY. Help is available for both gamblers and family members impacted by them. The organization will work to find help for individuals without insurance and will work to make sure people with insurance can receive treatment confidentially if necessary.

Contact Chris Carlson anytime: Email | Twitter | 315-412-1639

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