Browse articles by topic

Problem gambling in a pandemic

Insight | Analysis

The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has prompted calls for igaming regulation from a number of quarters. But National Council on Problem Gambling executive director Keith Whyte warns that this may contribute to a spike in problem gambling at a time when treatment services are already underfunded and harder to reach for sufferers.

As coronavirus (Covid-19) spreads across the US so do efforts to expand online gambling. Indeed,  gambling advocates are calling on state governors to use emergency powers to legalize and regulate online gambling to help mitigate economic damage wreaked by the epidemic. 

Keith Whyte

While these aggressive and controversial efforts are unlikely to succeed, there is little doubt that when legislatures are able to reconvene, internet gambling will likely be a hot topic. The roughly dozen states that allow some form of legal online lottery, poker and/or casino operations have seen significant growth. However, these shifting gambling preferences may come with additional risk in several areas.   

One is that the coronavirus may disproportionately affect individuals with gambling problems in the US. Problem gamblers already have poorer mental and physical health, and limited access to health care in America places people with addiction at greater risk for many illnesses. 

If clinics and counselors are pushed to their capacity, it could be that people with addiction—who are already stigmatized and underserved by the healthcare system—will experience even greater barriers to treatment. 

People with gambling problems are much more likely to be homeless or incarcerated, which can expose people to environments where they are in close contact with others who might also be at higher risk for infections. Self-quarantine and other vital public health measures also disrupt access to counseling, self-help group meetings and other support needed by people with gambling addiction. 

Risk factors for gambling problems include depression and social isolation, all of which may be exacerbated by the current coronavirus pandemic. Job losses and economic pressures may lead some gamblers to play more in an effort to make money. These factors may also trigger relapse among gamblers in recovery.  

Second, while overall gambling participation has likely significantly decreased, spikes have been seen in online gambling as some gamblers shift their preferences. In general, online gambling is associated with higher risk for problems, particularly among young males with high rates of gambling involvement but low responsible gambling literacy. 

There is promising emerging evidence from the UK and other jurisdictions that online environments may allow even greater responsible gambling features than in retail. However, most online gambling operators in the US have not adopted NCPG’s best practice Internet Responsible Gambling Standards or passed our Internet Compliance Assessment Program (iCAP). Thus, many online gamblers in the US, especially first-time online players, do not have the types of responsible gambling protections as required in other more established jurisdictions.  

Finally, problem gambling services are likely to face cuts since many states allocate funding based on a percentage of gambling revenue. Economic downturns lead to drops in individual and corporate charitable giving, another major source of support for problem gambling services. As overall state tax revenues decline yet Covid 19-related healthcare costs skyrocket, health budgets will be under considerable pressure. 

Behavioral health services are often the last funded and first cut, and problem gambling is usually the least funded behavioral health program. In 2016 only $72m in public funds was allocated for all problem gambling programs in the US, 230 times less per capita than public funding for substance abuse treatment alone. This places a heavy burden on gambling industry to fund basic programs. 

Even the NCPG’s National Problem Gambling Helpline Network is entirely funded by membership dues and donations. Nine states still do not provide any public funding for prevention, treatment or research of problem gambling.    

Covid-19-related closures and quarantines may exacerbate existing gambling problems, shift gambling to higher risk forms and devastate budgets for problem gambling services—which are already severely strained—just when they are needed the most. 

Therefore NCPG urges online gambling companies operating in the US to recognize these challenges and adopt the types of responsible gambling principles and programs created in the UK. 

We also urge caution in pushing to expand online gambling during an epidemic, especially in states that are unwilling or unable to seriously address gambling problems. If and when a backlash comes, government will always shift the blame to the industry. The US online gambling market will likely grow dramatically, but with great profits comes great responsibility.