As Virginia preps for casinos and sports betting, experts say state needs sharper focus on problem gambling

By: - February 24, 2020 12:05 am

Scratch tickets were the third highest type of gambling cited by callers to Virginia’s problem gambling hotline. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Billy Hoffman couldn’t put a dollar amount on how much he lost to his gambling problem. What started in his teenage years as a passion for poker grew into trips to the horse track, a knack for sniffing out backroom video gambling machines and lottery ticket buying sprees. After losing his second marriage, he knew it had cost him too much.

So he called a hotline. He got involved in Gamblers Anonymous, pulling himself into recovery and a new career as a counselor working with people struggling with their own gambling issues.

“It’s the only addiction that offers hope,” said Hoffman, a former radio personality who lives in the Richmond area. “Alcoholics don’t get drunk and feel like ‘When I wake up from this all my problems are going to be solved.’ Gamblers go into each episode feeling like: This time could change everything.”

With the Virginia General Assembly poised to legalize casinossports betting and online lottery tickets, Hoffman and others believe that if the state is going to approve a significant gambling expansion, it has to start taking a more serious approach to treating the problems that come with it. Details of the bills are still being worked out and Gov. Ralph Northam will get a chance to review them, but both concepts appear to have bipartisan support.

If the bills pass, sports wagering could potentially begin in time for the next NFL season, and betting on games could be as easy as swiping a phone screen. Voters in five cities — Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Richmond — would still have to OK casinos in their communities. If those ballot referendums pass, in a few years Virginia gamblers would no longer have to drive to casinos in other states for table games like blackjack, roulette and craps.

Assuming the legislation pans out, Hoffman said, “we are getting ready to bring people into gambling that would have never gambled in their life.”

“It causes a dopamine rush in the brain that cannot be gotten anywhere else,” Hoffman said. “A compulsive gambler’s problem is not that they can’t win. They can’t stop.”

Currently, Virginia’s main problem gambling resource is a telephone hotline administered by the nonprofit Virginia Council on Problem Gambling and funded by a $30,000 annual appropriation from the Virginia Lottery.

‘We have to have those discussions’

According to the council, the hotline received more than twice as many intake calls in 2019 as it did in 2018, an increase that coincided with the reopening of Colonial Downs and its Rosie’s-themed gambling emporiums (which feature slots-like historical horse racing machines) and the proliferation of so-called gray machines, the unregulated, slots-inspired games that have shown up in bars and convenience stores throughout the state. During that period, the number of callers identifying slot machines or gray machines as their primary gambling method rose 183 percent, according to the council.

“As we’ve seen those markets expand, we’re seeing more people reporting those problems,” said Dr. Carolyn Hawley, the president of the problem gambling council and an associate professor in mental health counseling at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Allied Health Professions.

In many ways, Hawley said, the effects of gambling addiction are similar to substance abuse. It often involves failed efforts to break the habit, blowing past self-imposed limits, needing to gamble more and more to get the same feeling, lying to family or friends and the loss of money, jobs and relationships. But for some mental health professionals, Hawley said, gambling disorders just aren’t on the radar.

Changing that, she believes, will require funding an organized awareness and prevention push involving health providers, state agencies, schools and universities, religious institutions and the criminal justice system.

“We have to have those discussions and a comprehensive plan in place,” Hawley said. “Because there are some people who develop significant problems. And that hurts the individual. It hurts their families. It hurts their communities.”

The hotline number is printed on every lottery ticket and is included in brochures and other material the Lottery distributes focused on problem gambling.

“We always make sure we remind people to play responsibly,” said Lottery spokesman John Hagerty.

Colonial Downs also displays the hotline number at its facilities in New Kent County, Richmond, Hampton and the town of Vinton in Roanoke County.

Aaron Gomes, chief operating officer for Colonial Downs Group, said his company trains its employees on “how to recognize the signs, characteristics and symptoms of problem behaviors and how to assist those in need of help.”

“Literature offering ways to seek help that highlights responsible gaming is available at all of our properties,” Gomes said.

Colonial Downs in New Kent County. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Apart from the hotline, there’s little solid data on how many Virginians already have gambling problems. But research suggests between 5 and 10 percent of adults may be at risk.

Last year, a state study concluded Virginia’s current problem gambling efforts are insufficient, regardless of whether new forms of gambling are approved and more people are at risk of developing a problem.

“The percentage of adult Virginians who experience gambling disorder — a clinical addiction — would be small, but a larger number of gamblers would suffer negative effects, as well as their friends and family,” the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee report said. “Virginia’s current problem gambling prevention and treatment efforts are minimal and need to be enhanced, even if gaming is not expanded.”

The JLARC report suggested an effective problem gambling program would require five staffers and anywhere from $2 million to $6 million in state funding. The report also said the state should consider partnering with a third-party expert or university to track the effectiveness of its efforts to promote responsible gambling.

How legislation addresses problem gambling

The state-level problem gambling council and the National Council on Problem Gambling are neutral on the question of whether gambling should be expanded, but they argue any move in that direction must be accompanied by an equivalent boost in prevention and treatment resources.

Lawmakers sponsoring the bills to expand gambling insist they’re well aware of the downsides and say they’re working to address it.

Most of the gambling bills making their way through the legislature include language specifying that some of the revenue will be set aside in a new Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Fund overseen by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The exact amount of funding will depend on how much new gambling revenue the state takes in.

The casino legislation would dedicate a small fraction of total tax revenue (either 1 percent or .08 percent, depending on the bill version) to the problem gambling fund. The sports betting bills would dedicate 2.5 percent of their tax revenue to the fund.

The Senate version of the two-year state budget  includes $700,000 to begin filling the fund.

The casino legalization bill would require prospective operators to submit a responsible gambling plan as part of their application for a casino license. The bill also calls for a voluntary exclusion program that would essentially let people ban themselves from any casino floor, a service Colonial Downs says it offers already.

Supporters of casinos and sports betting contend that because people will find ways to gamble one way or another, it’s self-defeating to allow those dollars to pay for schools in neighboring states or stay in the black market. State-sanctioned betting, they argue, will produce millions in state and local tax revenue and give the five the five cities named in the casino bill a chance at economic revitalization.

“If we had this kind of help 24 years ago, just imagine, if you will, the kind of money that we would have in the general fund today,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who has long pushed for casino-style gambling in Virginia without success.

Though legislators had the chance to get even more gambling revenue by taxing and regulating gray machines, the General Assembly is poised to ban them, forcing the removal of thousands of machines that have been operating with no regulatory oversight.

Skill games in a Richmond corner store. The games have popped up in gas stations, convenience stores and bars around the state. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Hearings on the casino bill have featured strong shows of support from local leaders representing the cities that could stand to benefit from them. And the bill was crafted with input from a small army of lobbyists representing would-be casino operators.

Only a few people have stood up to suggest the state might be making a mistake.

The socially conservative Family Foundation has urged legislators not to buy into the idea that the casinos will be filled with well-off professionals enjoying a night out.

“It’s nothing more than reverse Robin Hood: Taking from the poor to give to the rich,” said the Family Foundation’s Todd Gathje.

At least some of the revenue that has supporters excited, Gathje said, will be coming from problem gamblers.

A battle over breakage

According to the JLARC report, there’s currently only one source of problem gambling funding written into state law. When legislators approved wagering on horse racing, they specified that 30 percent of the breakage — the pennies left over from rounding down payouts — be set aside for “gambling addiction and substance abuse counseling, recreational, educational or other related programs.” The report noted that none of the breakage money has been used to mitigate problem gambling.

That observation synced up with a legislative idea brought forward by Tad Berman, a Richmond horse racing fan who acts as a citizen watchdog against Colonial Downs and its regulator, the Virginia Racing Commission.

With the help of Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, Berman pushed for a bill this year that would require 80 percent of the breakage money to go into a problem gambling fund. Because the breakage comes from both live horse racing and the historical horse racing machines, state fiscal analysts projected those pennies could add up to several hundred thousand dollars per year.

When Reeves and Berman presented their bill to the Senate General Laws Committee, several senators said they would oppose it because it didn’t go far enough.

“I think you’re onto something right,” said Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg. “But I think we need way more money than what you’ve allocated here.”

“This is a really important issue,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “I think you’ve got the will of this committee that whatever we end up passing forward is going to have that component. This is essential.”

In their review of the bill, budget analysts said it would take more than $3 million and 25 new staff positions to create a gambling addiction treatment program in the behavioral health department. The breakage bill alone, the analysis said, probably wouldn’t be enough to pay for any “substantial form of treatment or support.”

Berman argued the bill — which failed in committee — could provide “seed money” for a fund that would grow once casinos and sports betting arrive and start generating tax revenue. 

In an interview, Berman said he was frustrated lawmakers had passed up an opportunity to take a relatively small amount of money from the horse-racing industry and use it to benefit gamblers already participating in state-sanctioned betting. Just as baffling, he said, was a provision in the casino bill that would give Colonial Downs permission to install more gambling machines as protection against future competitors.

“Why would we give these guys an opportunity to clean our clocks again and then turn around and ignore an opportunity to help the people that are suffering from this?,” Berman said.

To help make his case to legislators at the Capitol, Berman brought a friend, Rick Crowder.

In an interview, Crowder said he and his wife started as high-school sweethearts and went on to raise two sons and run a Richmond-area business together. They started taking trips to Atlantic City to see concerts, but Crowder said he had no idea how deep her gambling habit had gotten until he discovered how much money had gone missing. In late 2014, he confronted her. Then she left the house, went to a hotel room and took her own life.

“It’s really shredded my family and kids,” Crowder said. “We could’ve fixed her. But we didn’t know to. And she didn’t have any options of places to turn to.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.