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Helpline Calls Spike With Virginia Gambling Expansion 

More money is being funneled into Virginia’s problem gambling services, but advocates say increased gambling demands more resources for help.

Virginia ranked near the bottom of all states in the amount of money directed toward problem gambling before casino and sports betting were legalized. The Problem Gambling Treatment and Support fund was created in 2020 when gambling expanded in Virginia. Collection of revenues into the fund began in January 2021.

Before 2021, the Virginia Lottery directed approximately $75,000 annually to the fund, according to VPM. Casinos are now required to put .8% of a statutory tax into casino adjusted gross revenue, the money left after winning bets are paid, into the gambling help fund. Sports wagering sends 2.5% of taxed AGR to the fund.

Fifteen states increased their budget 5% or more between 2021 and 2022, according to the National Association of Administrators for Disordered Gambling Services.

Virginia significantly bumped up its support in 2022, and gave around $2 million to problem gambling services, according to numbers from NAADGS.

A report prepared for the General Assembly in 2019 estimated that effective problem gambling prevention and treatment could cost $2 million to $6 million annually.

Sports bettors are setting record breaking amounts of wagers. The state is collecting more tax revenue than was forecast four years ago, according to the Virginia Mercury.

Bettors used mobile apps to wager $565.56 million on sports in October, according to the most recent Virginia Lottery report. They wagered over $5.78 million through a casino sportsbook. That left $56.36 million combined sports betting AGR for the state to tax.

The taxable amount from slots and table games at all three casinos combined in October was $49.56 million. The AGR is similar but sports wagering sends more money to the problem gambling fund. Casino play contributed $72,887 toward the fund in October and sports betting contributed $213,754. The majority of gamblers are not using casinos to access Virginia’s 16 legal sports books.

Caesars Casino in Danville holds the highest share of casino sports betting at almost 6.5%. FanDuel is the state’s No. 1 sportsbook with 40% of the market share, according to the state lottery October gaming compliance report. DraftKings is No. 2 with 28%.

Views on sports betting

Northern Virginia resident Cristian Lazo, age 21, began sports betting in May. He places weekly bets using DraftKings. Lazo uses online sports betting as opposed to in-person due to convenience.

Lazo was already a sports fan, and decided to earn some money. “Betting on it can make watching the sport better sometimes,” Lazo said. Sports betting isn’t uncommon among Lazo’s friends. He mostly bets on football and soccer games, and he’s won “a good amount of bets.” “I think the total amount of money I’ve won is somewhere around $350 to $400,” Lazo said.

Lazo said he “technically” hasn’t lost any money because of the rewards program that he takes advantage of. He puts some of his winnings toward other wagers.

Brendan Dwyer is the director of research and distance learning at the Center for Sports Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. An associate professor, he has degrees in economics and sports administration. “Sports betting is something that makes the sports industry more attractive,” Dwyer said. “It’s better for games and it’s better for the consumer.”

About 19% of Americans, or 1 in 5, reported sports betting in a 12-month period, the Pew Research Center reported last year. That includes online, with a friend or at a casino. Most people who bet are under the age of 50.

A majority see sports gambling as neither bad nor good for society. Only 8% saw it as a good thing for society, and a slightly higher amount saw it as good for sports.  About a third of people surveyed view gambling as bad for society and sports.

There are more positives than negatives, according to Dwyer, who does not think sports betting is going away “any time soon.”  “As long as we identify who the major groups are that need to be aware of the challenges, I think it is something that should be supported by the leagues, the teams, by state legislatures because of the revenue that they get from it,” Dwyer said.

Sports betting shifts younger

Gambling age demographics have shifted nationwide due to the recent legalization in many states.

Lia Nower is director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University. “Overall, men have the highest rates of gambling problems as well as emerging adults, ages 21 to 25, followed by ages 26 to 44,” stated Nower. In-person gambling trends older while online casinos and sports betting trends younger, according to Nower.

The state helpline has seen a shift in the age of callers, which used to be older individuals who had been gambling for years before developing a problem, according to Carolyn Hawley.

Hawley works with the Virginia Lottery-funded problem gambling helpline as president of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling. She is also an associate professor in the department of rehabilitation counseling at VCU. “We’ve seen a huge shift, and this has been seen nationwide with also the onset of sports betting legalization, is a much younger demographic,” Hawley said. “People who are starting to develop problems really quick … it’s that speed, that repetitive nature, that works with dopamine and just you know, accelerates that addictive process.”

 Roughly 2% of Virginia’s population could be impacted by problem gambling, the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services commissioner said earlier this year.

Substance use disorders in the U.S. are 3.8 times more common than gambling disorders, according to the VCPG. But public funding for substance abuse treatment is about 334 times greater than public funding for all problem gambling services, or $24.4 billion versus $73 million, respectively, according to the VCPG.

Spike in helpline calls

The state problem gambling helpline has seen a 788% increase in total calls between 2019 and 2022, in part due to increased advertising of the services, according to Hawley. “Since launching treatment and recovery services for Virginians last year, the need for these services is outpacing our resources,” Hawley said.

Helpline operations are covered by Virginia Lottery funds. But the education, prevention and other activities of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling are covered by membership fees, according to Hawley, and are not guaranteed from year to year.

Virginia used to be a “conservative” gambling state, Hawley said. “We had our three main forms of gambling which was lottery, horse wagering and charitable, and since 2019 we just exploded with the forms of gambling that are now available and legal,” Hawley said.

Substance abuse disorder and gambling disorder share a lot of the same characteristics, according to Hawley. “Gambling can often be more insidious because you can’t smell it, you can’t see it, people are very good at hiding it,” Hawley said.

There are also high rates of suicide among people with a gambling addiction, according to Hawley. Approximately 16% of individuals with problem gambling will attempt suicide, compared to 0.7% of the population, according to research published this year in the Journal of Gambling Studies. A very high number of people with problem gambling meet criteria for other mental illnesses, according to the nonprofit Health Resources in Action.

How to get started with help

Some signs that could indicate an individual has a gambling addiction, according to Hawley:

  • Gambling is interfering with life and causing problems.

  • A lot of time is spent thinking about gambling and planning the next gambling activity.

  • More time spent gambling than other activities the individual used to enjoy.

  • It takes more to get that same level of excitement.

  • It is hard to cut back or stop.

The VCPG helpline 1-888-532-3500.

By Kaitlyn McMahon/Capital News Service / VCU InSight journalist Mario Navarro contributed to this report.

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