Massachusetts Sports Betting Is Here. Will More Gambling Addiction …

Massachusetts is making a big wager: legalized sports betting won’t lead to a surge in the number of residents with a gambling addiction.

Legal in-person sports betting for people over age 21 began January 31, just in time for Superbowl LVII, pitting the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs, on February 12. State regulators have targeted early March for the launch of mobile betting, before the first jump ball of the NCAA basketball tournament (March Madness) on March 14. Mobile sportsbook licenses have been granted to a half dozen app operators so far—DraftKings (based in Boston), Bally’s, Betway, PointsBet, betr, and FanDuel—and more are pending, 

Aware of the potential of gambling disorders to destroy a person’s finances and relationships, a Voluntary Self-Exclusion (VSE) list allows Bay Staters to request that the state prohibit them from sportsbooks and betting apps, temporarily or for good. 

Will that be enough, in a state that, in one analysis from 2016, ranked as 25th in the nation for gambling disorders? We asked Dong Chan Park, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine and a Bedford Veterans Affairs Medical Center addiction psychiatrist, whose comments here are in his capacity as a BU professor, not as a VA doctor. 

This interview has been edited for length.


With Dong Chan Park

BU Today: How many people in the United States have a gambling addiction? How many such patients do you treat personally?

Park: It is estimated that about 0.4 to 0.6 percent of the population in the United States experiences gambling problems in their lifetime. Our behavioral addiction clinic has gotten about 20 to 30 referrals a year for gambling disorders over the last five years. About a dozen of my patients with other substance use disorders have gambling disorder as their comorbidity.

BU Today: Will the legalization by Massachusetts worsen gambling disorders?

Park: Probably not in the immediate future, from the lessons we learned from the cannabis legalization. There is a concern, however, for how the legalization may change the perception and acceptance among the youth and children, and, in turn, impact how they might view sports betting a generation later. We know that access does matter in the field of addictive disorder research and treatment, and I expect a lot more people would be more exposed to sports betting with the legalization.

BU Today: What about among college students—are they a special concern?

Park: Not many people talk about college students as a special concern at this time. They are thought of more as a special concern for any problematic [addictive] internet gaming behaviors.

BU Today: Will the state’s Voluntary Self-Exclusion list [whose signers are asking to be banned, temporarily or permanently, from sportsbooks and mobile betting apps] prevent any increase in gambling addiction’s harms?

Park: It can be helpful for a lot of people with gambling disorders from casinos. I am not aware of any research of its effectiveness on sports betting and/or the Voluntary Self-Exclusion from the mobile app.

Personal opinion of the whole industry: I would like to see more regulation on the advertisements of sports-betting mobile apps from the media.

BU Today: What are the warning signs someone should look for that may indicate they have an addiction?

Park: If they are finding themselves lying to others about how much or how often they are betting, [and] if they are finding that they need to bet increasing amounts of money, those are some of the signs they should look for. The answers to these two questions tend to be more predictive of gambling disorder than others.

BU Today: What resources are available for individuals seeking help with a gambling addiction?

Park: There are effective treatments available. Massachusetts runs a 24/7 gambling help line at 1-800-327-5050. Some non–FDA approved medications have shown to be helpful in treating gambling disorder as well. Mu opioid receptor antagonists have shown promise, but they do not have FDA approval.

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