When Coloradans gained access to online/mobile sports betting on May 1, it provided a new avenue to an often hidden addiction for which people seldom seek help — and for which the state has historically offered little support, if they did.
That’s a major concern for Michael Faragher, a psychologist who is longtime director of the University of Denver Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center.
“When you make anything more available, the number of people that will engage in it increases, and with that increase there’s always a predictable percentage who will have problems,” Faragher noted in an interview with COBets.
“I’m very worried, because there are going to be thousands of people with very serious problems. Gambling addiction leads to one of the highest suicide rates of any psychological disorder, along with family disorders, the impact on businesses where they work, and more. There’s going to be enormous problems.”
Gambling becomes more available and more marketed
Faragher wasn’t speaking as an anti-gambling moralist, but as a serious clinician and researcher recently contracted by the state to propose a comprehensive statewide plan to address problem gambling, which he estimates might directly affect 200,000 Coloradans.
The state’s residents have been able to gamble in casinos in Black Hawk, Central City, and Cripple Creek for nearly three decades, but it has always required some effort on their part to get to those mountain towns to indulge their interest in slot machines and table games.
Gambling on the Broncos, Rockies, etc., was long possible through illegal bookmakers and online, unregulated sites circumventing U.S. law, but now it’s in the open after voters narrowly authorized it in a November referendum. Ubiquitous marketing from the newly licensed operators will make sure everyone knows it’s legal and possible now, if they somehow missed the news.
As of last Friday, those 21 and older within the state’s borders could bet sports by phone or computer on any of four digital sites that were up and running, with more than a dozen others expected to follow. Once casinos shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic are deemed safe to reopen, 33 are also licensed to have retail sportsbooks.
Colorado has never devoted much to the issue
Colorado, of all states, is not one particularly well-suited to taking on an increased risk of compulsive gambling, Faragher said.
“We have ranked at or near the very bottom of states in terms of funding of problem gambling,” he said. “Neither the state nor the industry have stepped up to the plate to accommodate and provide the resources we know need to be associated with the casualties that are going to come forward with that form of entertainment.”
The law that enabled last year’s referendum does provide new funding, but more modestly than in most states. It stipulates that $100,000 from Colorado’s 10% tax on sports betting revenue is to be used for prevention, education, treatment, and workforce development related to gambling disorders. Another $30,000 is to fund a crisis help line for gamblers.
Unlike in many states, no percentage of casino revenue in Colorado was historically dedicated to problem gambling initiatives. It has no professional statewide organization with a staff working full time on the issue. The Limited Gaming Control Commission, which oversees the casinos, has no staff members dedicated to problem gambling and no information about addiction on its website.
A volunteer organization, the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado, receives some funding support from the Colorado Gaming Association. The coalition sponsors a help line at 800-522-4700 and collaborates with the gaming association to maintain a self-exclusion list for those gamblers voluntarily recognizing their problem and signing up to be denied casino access.
The state legislature has typically allocated $100,000 a year to the Office of Behavioral Health to address problem gambling. In some years, but not recently, those funds went to Faragher’s center at the University of Denver to assist it in training counselors, treating patients, and hosting an annual conference, among other activities.
Proposed statewide plan comes at the wrong time
Faragher received $50,000 from the state each of the past two years, he said, to develop a proposed statewide plan he submitted to the Office of Behavioral Health six weeks ago. The plan, still awaiting formal review, recommends that the state spend $2 million to $3 million annually, with a focus on training counselors in the specifics of gambling addiction and promoting widespread screening for the problem at mental health centers and treatment of it.
Faragher recognized the daunting prospects for an unprecedented new plan at a time when the effects of COVID-19 shutdowns are creating a financial crisis for governments across the board.
“There’s going to be items that have priority over addressing problem gambling,” he acknowledged. “The state has managed to get by without dealing with problem gambling in any meaningful way for quite a while, and I can see that happening, unfortunately, for another year as other demands continue to get what meager funding might be available. There’s certain areas you just can’t cut back on.”
With that pessimistic outlook for any large-scale new initiatives, Faragher is expecting to see new problems emerge from the online/mobile sports betting that will go untreated, though they won’t typically be evident overnight. It may take people a while to build up losses, strain all of their financial resources, and spiral downward, all before they even consider seeking help as a last resort.
“We don’t see people trying to get help right away, because they don’t want to quit, because it cuts off their only avenue to getting back what they lost,” Faragher said. “That’s the biggest difference between gambling addiction and all others.”
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