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Mental Health and Well-Being

Sports Betting Coming to a State Near You! Will Problem Gambling Follow?

July 31, 2018


All but two states collect revenue through one or more types of gambling. The nature of gambling has changed in recent years, however, with the proliferation of Daily Fantasy Sports. Public health should be concerned about these gambling trends and legal changes because gambling can have a deleterious effect on the health of a community.

States have expanded legal gambling significantly over the last decade and continue to do so as they grapple with budget shortfalls, desperate to raise revenue without raising taxes. All but two states collect revenue through one or more types of gambling.

The nature of gambling has changed in recent years, however, with the proliferation of Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS). The major DFS companies offer services in 39 states as many regulators have determined that DFS is a permissible skill-based game rather than impermissible gambling (or games of chance). In 2017, the DFS industry collected over $3 billion in user entry fees and generated $335 million in revenues.

And now states have the opportunity to further expand permissible gambling—and state revenue—by permitting sports betting, such as wagers on the Super Bowl and brackets for March Madness following the decision in  Murphy v. NCAA (May 14, 2018). In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), a federal law prohibiting states from allowing sports betting, was unconstitutional (States that had already permitted sports betting prior to 1992)–Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana—were allowed to continue under a grandfather clause.) Openly challenging the PASPA, in 2012 New Jersey passed a law allowing sports betting; that law was quickly challenged in court, resulting in the Murphy decision striking down the PASPA.

While full sports betting is currently operational in only two states, grandfathered under PASPA, since Murphy decision, six states have passed laws allowing sports betting and another 14 have or are considering similar legislation. It is a solid bet that within a year, many states will have passed laws permitting and regulating sports betting, with the hope of gaining revenue from this newly permitted gambling.

Why should public health professionals and policy makers concerned about public health pay attention to these gambling trends and legal changes? Because gambling can have a deleterious effect on the health of a community. Aware of the potential for negative impact of increased  forms of, and access to, gambling, the National Council on Problem Gambling  has focused on promoting consumer protections and responsible gaming policies across the country in an effort to protect those individuals who may not engage in gaming safely. According to the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, about two million American adults meet the criteria for “pathological” gambling. Another four to six million are considered “problem gamblers” or gamblers at risk of developing a severe gambling problem. Nearly 30 percent of all male athletes bet on sports and approximately six percent of college students in the U.S. have a serious gambling problem. And, like many other risky behaviors, children who are involved in gambling activities are more likely to develop gambling related problems as adults.

Both DFS and sports betting present new challenges to those working to prevent and treat problem gambling. Soon, these gambling activities will be a just a phone app away, not requiring a trip to the casino or a stop at a gas station for lottery tickets. This expands the number of people likely to gamble. Another concern is the ease of access these forms of gambling create for children and those at risk of compulsive gambling. Casinos are able to regulate entry by minors and by those who have voluntarily agreed to exclusion, typically after dire consequences of compulsive gambling. And they routinely monitor the playing floor to identify those who may be struggling. Monitoring activity online is much more difficult for states and will likely be less effective in deterring problem gamblers and children.

Although revenue is generated from gambling and is often used for specific public good, like education, states must recognize another reality—problem gambling creates  risks to both individuals and communities. As states consider legalizing, and begin implementing, sports betting, the Network for Public Health Law can provide technical assistance to public health oriented policy makers eager to decrease the negative impact of expanding legal gambling. Public health must be considered and not relegated to a “backseat” in policy conversations dominated by the need to generate revenue. States must balance the potential benefits with the potential economic and social harms that expanded access and exposure to gambling may create or worsen.

This post by Mellissa Sager, J.D., Senior Staff Attorney for the Network for Public Health Law–Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.