×

Editorial: UMass study provides critical data on gambling


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Results of a University of Massachusetts Amherst study released this month provide critical data that will help to prevent and treat problem gambling as two more casinos open in the state, including MGM Springfield in September.

The first results from the comprehensive, multi-year study by a team from the UMass School of Public Health and Health Sciences found that 2 percent of the state’s population are problem gamblers, which is in line with other states. However, a higher than expected rate of growth in problem gamblers during the initial two surveys raises a concern.

More encouragingly, the UMass study also suggests that problem gamblers may be able to change their behavior more easily than traditionally has been thought — a good reason to begin ramping up rehabilitation programs as the opportunities for gambling here expand.

“It’s pretty clear that people phase in and out of the problem gambling group,” says Rachel Volberg, lead investigator of the study and an associate professor whose research specializes in gambling. “Until recently, the general orientation has been that disordered gambling is an unremitting chronic condition.”

The research is funded by $3.64 million from the Public Health Trust Fund established under a state law adopted in 2011 that permitted up to three resort casinos and one slot parlor in Massachusetts. The trust fund is designed “to mitigate the harms associated with gambling … focusing on research, prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery support services to help mitigate the effects of problem gambling and related issues.”

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission defines problem gambling as a disorder that “causes disruptions in any major area of life: psychological, physical, social or vocational. It is a progressive addiction characterized by increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more money more frequently, restlessness or irritability when attempting to stop, ‘chasing’ losses, and loss of control manifested by continuation of the gambling behavior in spite of mounting, serious, negative consequences.”

The UMass study, which surveyed 3,139 adults who live in Massachusetts, is significant because it is the first research of its kind examining gambling in the United States. The longitudinal study asks questions of the same people over a period of years so that changes in their behavior can be analyzed.

“Based on this new study, researchers will think about gambling behavior in new ways,” Volberg says. “This has significant value as it can highlight risk and protective factors important in developing effective prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery support services.”

According to the initial report, based on surveys conducted between 2013 and 2015, “the incidence of problem gambling may be relatively high, despite the fact that casinos are not yet operating in the Commonwealth. If true, it would indicate that additional prevention and treatment resources for the state are required. The results also suggest that remission from problem gambling is quite high. If true, then additional treatment resources may be especially beneficial in accelerating such transitions.”

Behavior was measured by asking about participation in gambling activities including lotteries, raffles, casinos, bingo, horse racing, sports betting, private betting and online betting.

Among the findings are that slightly fewer than half (49.4 percent) of the people who were problem or pathological gamblers when surveyed in 2013-14 stayed in that category in 2015. Most whose behavior improved were reclassified in the “at-risk” or “recreational” gambling categories.

The UMass researchers hope eventually to determine whether factors such as the proximity of casinos, public attitudes or advertising contribute to higher rates of problem gambling; what variables are likely to predict recovery from problem gambling; and whether there are “safe levels” of gambling behavior that usually do not lead to it becoming a problem.

For now, the report suggests, “Given the riskiness of specific forms of gambling in Massachusetts, including casinos, instant and daily lottery games, and online gambling, work is needed to foster public health partnerships with gaming operators to develop and implement effective prevention efforts within gambling venues.”

That is a sensible step to combine with resources already offered by the state to educate people about treatment available for problem gamblers. That information from the state Department of Public Health Office of Problem Gambling Services is online at: bit.ly/2n7YzB6.

We applaud the state for focusing attention on problem gambling as the casino industry expands, and we anticipate that the UMass researchers will continue to provide information helpful in strengthening prevention and treatment programs in Massachusetts.