By Maeve Walsh
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — From kiosks to mobile apps like FanDuel and DraftKings, Ohio will soon witness a record-breaking expansion of sports betting — and likely more gambling addiction to go along with it.
While state agencies prepare for the implementation of recently passed legislation that legalized sports betting in Ohio, those who specialize in problem gambling prevention said they are bracing for an influx of people seeking help.
The bill will allow Ohioans to bet on sports in three areas: online, at a physical location and through kiosks. Lawmakers predict that bettors can place their first wagers in January 2023.
“This is the largest expansion of gambling that Ohio has ever seen,” Derek Longmeier, executive director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio, said. “It essentially allows every adult to have gambling in the palm of their hand 24/7.”
Not only does the bill mark the largest expansion of gambling in Ohio, Longmeier said it also marks the largest expansion of sports betting any U.S. state has ever seen, a record that sparks concern for some.
“The more opportunities there are to gamble, the more Ohioans who gamble. And the more Ohioans who gamble, the more Ohioans will have problems,” Longmeier said.
While nearly 80,000 Ohioans — or 1 in 10 — who gamble are at risk of developing a gambling problem, the probability of addiction increases nearly threefold when it’s narrowed to sports betting, with 1 in 4 sports bettors at risk for addiction, according to 2017 survey by the Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services.
The survey defines people who engage in problem gambling as those who generally exhibit “loss of control and distortions in thinking regarding gambling behaviors.”
The bill will add a 10% tax on the revenue from sports gaming, and of that money, most will go toward public and private K-12 education. Two percent will be set aside for gambling addiction services.
For Longmeier, the “golden question” is whether the 2% figure will be enough.
“Our gauge is, for every billion dollars that’s wagered on sports, that would equate to about $10 million in tax revenue for the state and about $200,000 for the problem sports gambling fund,” Longmeier said.
Problem gambling counselor Bruce Jones said he’s not convinced the 2% figure will adequately equip addiction support groups in preparing for the potential “tsunami” of people in need of treatment.
“By the crimes and all the other things that come along with addiction, I don’t know if the 2% will cover it – I doubt it very seriously – but it is what it is,” he said.
Jones, administrative coordinator for Maryhaven’s gambling prevention program, said his office has already seen a “big uptick” in the number of people calling in for problem gambling services.
Even though the sports betting bill won’t be effective until next year, Jones said ads have flooded the airwaves, proving to be a major distraction for many of his clients who are trying to stop gambling.
“We’ll have a lot of the curious people coming out and trying it,” he said. “God forbid if they win the first time, they’ll bid again.”
Calls to gambling helplines in neighboring states who have authorized sports betting have jumped significantly, Longmeier said. One such state where the legalization of sports betting “has made quite an impact” is Indiana, according to Christina Gray, executive director of the Indiana Council on Problem Gambling.
Since Indiana authorized sports betting in 2019, Gray said she’s seen a “slight increase” in phone calls to her office from people seeking help for a gambling addiction.
Although a survey funded by the council found that about 4% of Indiana’s population has a gambling disorder, Gray said it’s hard to pinpoint an exact number — largely because it’s hard for people to admit they have a disease in the first place.
“People are so ashamed and embarrassed to say they have a gambling problem because they’re not ingesting anything, so it’s, ‘Why can’t I stop?’” Gray said.
Unlike a drug or alcohol addiction, Longmeier said physical indicators like smell or taste don’t always accompany gambling addictions, contributing to the challenge of identifying — and consequently helping — those who engage in problem gambling.
“We call it the hidden addiction,” Longmeier said.
In the twelve years that Jones has worked as a problem gambling counselor, he said people often resort to gambling to avoid other problems in their life, whether as a way to escape from their family or distance themselves from hardships at work. And he said a gambling addiction is usually accompanied by other disorders.
“Very rarely do we see someone who purely has a gambling disorder – they might have a depression, substance use disorder to go with it,” he said.
For family and friends of people who engage in problem gambling, Longmeier and Jones said it’s important to “follow the money,” as those with an addiction often seize control of the finances to conceal extravagant wins or losses.
“It’s unfortunate when I get calls from loved ones who had no idea the gambling problem was happening until their car got repossessed or their house was about to be foreclosed upon,” Longmeier said.
For amateur and experienced gamblers alike, Longmeier encouraged them to take a self-assessment at beforeyoubet.org to determine whether they’re partaking in healthy gambling habits. It’s also important, he said, for a gambler to assess whether their wagers are rooted in enjoyment or in the desire to get rich.
“‘The house always wins’ is kinda the phrase,” he said. “It really should be focused on entertainment. Odds are you’re not gonna win, so we want to make sure you’re very knowledgeable about that.”
While Longmeier and his office continue to work with state agencies to iron out the details of enforcing the sports betting bill, he said one of his priorities is training his workforce to help staff identify what problem gambling looks like.
“We never want to be in a situation where someone calls for help and there’s nobody there to help them, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Contact the Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline at 800-589-9966 or visit the Ohio Problem Gambling Online Resource Directory.