Rates of problem gambling stable despite more betting opportunities

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Senior research scientists John Welte speculates that the economic downturn that started in 2008 may be behind relatively static rates of problem gambling, despite the growth in gambling opportunities in recent years. Photo: University of Buffalo
Senior research scientist John Welte speculates that the economic downturn that started in 2008 may be behind relatively static rates of problem gambling, despite the growth in gambling opportunities in recent years. Photo: University of Buffalo

Is the issue of problem gambling any worse since the rise of online gambling to augment traditional channels such as horse-race betting and casinos?

An American study indicates that, despite an increase in gambling opportunities, rates of problem gambling have remained stable.

In the past decade, online gambling has exploded and several states have approved measures to legalize various types of gambling.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions in New York State investigated whether there had been a rise in the number of people with gambling problems as a result.

“We compared results from two nationwide telephone surveys, conducted a decade apart,” said John Welte, a senior research scientist at the institute.

“We found no significant increase in the rates of problem gambling in the US, despite a nationwide increase in gambling opportunities.”

The first telephone survey interviewed 2613 people in 1999-2000, and the second survey interviewed 2963 people in 2011-13.

Individuals were asked about their participation in a broad range of gambling activities, including raffles, office pools, pulltabs, bingo, cards, pool, gambling machines, casinos, lottery, internet gambling, and sports, horse or dog track betting.

Despite an increase in gambling opportunities, rates of problem gambling remained stable.
Problem gambling includes behaviors such as constantly thinking about gambling, increasing bets to sustain thrill, lying to conceal gambling activity and the inability to stop gambling, among others.

Using several different criteria, the researchers found no statistically significant change in problem gambling or its more severe form, pathological gambling.

Rates of problem gambling remained in the 3.5 to 5.5 percent range, depending on the measure used, and rates of pathological gambling were in the 1.0 to 2.4 percent range.

And although there have been frequent stories in the media about women who are gambling addicts, men are more than twice as likely as women to be problem gamblers. In fact, the survey showed the prevalence of problem gambling among women actually decreased, from 2.9 to 2.5 percent.

In addition, the researchers found that overall participation in gambling activities decreased.

The percentage of respondents who gambled in the past year dropped to 76.9 percent in 2011-13, down from 82.2 percent in 1999-2000. Among respondents who gambled at least once in the past year, there was a significant reduction in the average number of days on which they gambled — 59.9 days per year in 1999-2000 to 53.7 days in 2011-13.

“Our results show it is clear that U.S. residents are gambling less often,” Welte said.

Previous research by Welte found that people were twice as likely to be problem gamblers if they lived within 10 miles of a casino. So, with a rising number of casinos in the country, why hasn’t problem gambling increased at the same rate?

Welte said he could only speculate.

“It may be due to the economic downturn we experienced starting in 2008, which resulted in a decline in casino business,” he said.

“It also could be due to the ‘theory of adaptation’ — that while initial increases in exposure to gambling venues lead to increases in rates of problem gambling, a population will eventually adapt and further negative consequences will not continue.”

The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and its findings have been published in the online edition of the Journal of Gambling Studies.

Its co-authors are the institute’s Grace Barnes, a senior research scientist; Marie-Cecile Tidwell, project manager; and Joseph Hoffman, a data analyst; along with William Wieczorek, who is director of the Center for Health and Social Research at SUNY Buffalo State.

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