Commentary

As legislature mulls aid for problem gamblers, consider sweetening the pot

January 11, 2023 12:19 am

(Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

I’m not a betting man. I have little faith that the fates will bless me. I could put $10 on the sun setting in the west and somehow lose.

But if I were, I’d wager that one of the easiest bills to pass in the 2023 General Assembly will be bipartisan legislation to create and fund a new Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Advisory Committee within the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to tend to the ravages gambling addiction inflicts on society.

It’s not only laudable, it’s overdue. And the need for it gets greater by the month. Problem gambling is a worsening scourge because of the growth in new forms of gambling that have become legal in the commonwealth since the Virginia Lottery was created in 1987 and went online a year later.

The General Assembly has legalized several other types of gambling, including off-track and trackside pari-mutuel betting and, most recently, casino gaming and sports books. In the past two years, the toll on people who become compulsive gamblers and their families has skyrocketed.

As the Mercury reported recently, new callers to a hotline run by the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling (VCPG) increased by 143% the past three years, up from 335 intake calls in 2020 to 816 last year. The numbers went hypersonic after Virginia first allowed legal sports betting for the 2021 Super Bowl.

“This is a devastating condition,” said Carolyn Hawley, a professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Rehabilitation Counseling and VCPG’s president.

“People don’t realize that it’s got the highest suicide rate of all addictions. [Gambling] just wipes out their families,” said Hawley, who also directs the VCU-based Virginia Partnership for Gaming and Health, a joint project of the university, the Virginia Lottery, VCPG and the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, have cosponsored companion bills this legislative session that would create a Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Advisory Committee. It would foster collaboration among companies that operate legal gambling in Virginia and organizations that try to prevent or treat individual out-of-control gambling crises.

The measure absolutely deserves to pass and be signed into law. But how much of the wreckage wrought on human lives by compulsive gambling was predictable – even knowable – before the legislature, in hot pursuit of easy revenue, went full-on Vegas mode the past few years and green-lighted sports and casino wagering?

“We’ve gone from just three forms of gambling to all these other forms in such a short, short window,” Hawley said.

How much of the wreckage wrought on human lives by compulsive gambling was predictable – even knowable – before the legislature, in hot pursuit of easy revenue, went full-on Vegas mode the past few years and green-lighted sports and casino wagering?

Has it been worth the revenue that varied forms of gambling contribute to the state budget? (For the record, the Lottery contributed about $3.7 billion to the budget in the fiscal year that expired on June 30 for K-12 education.)

But the state has been miserly in returning a scant share of the money that Virginians legally wager to programs that aid problem gamblers, particularly from the newest additions to Virginia’s sanctioned wagering environment.

Casino gambling is still in its infancy in Virginia. The first casino opened in a former Bristol shopping mall in July. In just its fifth month – November, the latest for which the Lottery has announced totals – it reported revenue of $12.6 million from its slot machines and table games. Virginia’s Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Fund got $18,216, or 0.8%, of the $2.3 million in total state taxes the casino paid. An additional $4,500, or 0.2% of the taxes, went to a fund for families and children of gambling addicts.

A casino is scheduled to open this week in Portsmouth, with another due to open this spring in Danville. Richmond voters narrowly rejected a referendum to locate a casino in the capital city.

According to the fiscal year 2021 report on sports betting compiled by the Lottery and sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin last July, sports wagers came to $1.3 billion in Virginia in just its first six months. After paying off winnings and taxes, the 10 sports book operators then in Virginia realized adjusted gross revenue of just under $50 million. Of that, about $5.4 million went into Virginia’s General Fund. Only $138,926 of that went to the problem gambling fund.

In the second year of sports betting, total wagers were almost $4.3 billion with adjusted gross revenue of $183 million. Of the $28 million that went to the state general fund, the Gambling Treatment and Support Fund got only $702,968.

Over the 12-month period from December of 2021 through November 2022, the latest for which monthly state reports are available, nearly $5 billion was wagered but the Gambling Treatment and Support Fund realized less than $1.2 million, with more than half of it coming in August through November. The spike resulted from the General Assembly ending a practice that allowed the sports books to write off “promotional costs” such as no-risk introductory bets and other inducements to lure in as many players as possible. The tactic was a naked attempt to tempt more players by effectively placing a bookie in their pockets 24/7 via easy-to-use smartphone apps, a major reason why calls to the VCPG hotline more than doubled since 2020.

Sports books entered Virginia two years ago with guns blazing. Advertising on TV and social media was gaudy, ubiquitous and – literally – made the whole thing look like one big, no-lose party. The wholesome first family of football, the Mannings, appears in ads that evoke a latter-day Roman bacchanalia for betting industry behemoth Caesars Sportsbook.

“Early on, it all seems so fun and people don’t understand the severity of it,” Hawley said. It’s no accident that the earliest bets are often the most lucrative for new players, particularly youthful ones, she said. Beginner’s luck is a hook. And the earlier someone starts, the greater the likelihood that it becomes a lifelong problem, she said.

“When you look at people who have a gambling addiction, it no longer looks like fun. They’re no longer having fun gambling, they’re no longer having fun drinking. It becomes a need,” she said.

The bipartisan legislation that creates a workable infrastructure through which those who fall victim to uncontrollable betting can get help is a good first step. But while they’re at it on Capitol Square this winter, maybe they should sweeten the pot for prevention and treatment. By a lot.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the second-year adjusted gross revenue of sports betting wagers as $1.83 million; it has been updated to reflect the correct figure, 183 million.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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