Although it doesn't receive as much ink as substance addiction, gambling addiction is on the minds of gaming regulators and attorneys, according to a panel at the Saratoga Institute for Equine, Racing, and Gaming Law Conference this week.
Studies show one to three percent of the population suffers from gambling addiction, roughly on par with other impulse control disorders like shopping or sexual addictions. Gambling addiction is a recognized psychological condition, according to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the gold standard for such definitions), but it carries a stigma.
“If you think you don't know a problem gambler you're probably mistaken,” said Nanette Horner, executive vice president, chief counsel, COO at Empire Resorts. “A problem gambler doesn't have a sign on them. You can't smell it on their breath, they don't have track marks. It's a hidden disease, but chances are you have met a problem gambler in your life.”
Horner said many people wrongly believe gambling addiction is a character flaw or a matter of poor financial management. Rather, the impulse control element of the disorder means addicted gamblers are those who chase losses with more expenditures, who are unable to stop gambling, and whose gambling continues despite serious negative impacts on their finances and family.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, the most likely types of gaming to attract problem gambling are those with fast speed of play and short response time. That doesn't necessarily mean that problem gambling doesn't impact horseplayers, however; the council's website emphasizes any gambling addict can be drawn to any type of wagering, the way an alcoholic can become intoxicated from any type of alcohol.
The DSM estimates less than 10 percent of addicted gamblers seek treatment, which may include therapy or progression through a 12-step program such as Gamblers Anonymous. Horner said her understanding is some addicted gamblers can self-treat and become immune to the impulse, similar to a child with gold germs.
All this makes it a challenge for casinos and racetracks to market their products in an ethical and legal manner. This is a particular challenge for casinos that may have rewards programs and offer free accommodation, food, or other rewards in exchange for spending.
Gaming commissions do offer the option for gamblers to self-exclude from wagering outlets if they are concerned they may have an addiction problem. These self-exclusions last for various amounts of time and encompass varying numbers of facilities, depending upon the person's location. They work by notifying customer service personnel at racetracks, lottery offices, and casinos not to allow the gambler to cash a bet. This applies to winnings over a certain threshold, such as those requiring a horseplayer to fill out an IRS form.
Legally, the panelists agreed the courts have been hesitant to hold casinos responsible for expenditures by addicted gamblers, as long as the casinos are following appropriate regulations regarding self-exclusion. Horner cited the case of Leonard Tose, a Philadelphia Eagles owner who racked up over $1 million in debts playing blackjack at Sands casino and accused the casino of plying him with drinks to get him to keep betting. Tose ultimately lost the case.
Like the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance in horse racing, gamblers can look for a seal of approval on Canadian wagering outfits to see if their policies encourage responsible play. The Responsible Gambling Council of Ontario accredits casinos and wagering outlets in Canada if they adhere to the council's standards regarding discouraging and handling problem gambling behavior. Stanley Sadinsky, chairman of the council's accreditation panel, said the requirements range from the response of employees when approached by a distressed gambler concerned about addiction, to the presentation of wins/wagers as dollars (not points), and even clocks on the wall to help customers keep track of the amount time they've spent inside.
Hastings Racecourse and the slots at Woodbine are among those certified by the program, which is called RG Check.
Sadinsky said the majority of re-accreditation inspections he has overseen have improved a facility's score as it continues to increase awareness of the issue.
“In a way, it's like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” said Sadinsky. “They can use the accreditation in advertising as they see fit to show they offer gambling in a responsible way … I think there's a good business reason for doing it, as well. The long-term success of a gaming industry should not be based on taking money from of small number of compulsive gamblers, but rather less money from a very large number of responsible gamblers.”
In New York, Carolyn Hapeman, director of education and community relations for the New York Gaming Commission, said the state has gone from “0 to 100” since 2013 in attempts to improve its handling of problem gamblers.
“When they said we were going to have a person dedicated to the role of responsible gaming, everybody started calling me the ‘Director of Anti-Sales,'” she said. “I take umbrage at that, simply because it's not about reducing sales in any way. It's about figuring out how do we do what we do really well (we're a $9 billion business, in the lottery), how do we do it responsibly?”
Hapeman said she extended New York's self-exclusion program to encompass any wagering facility in the state, not just the facility where the gambler signs up for self-exclusion. She's working with other states in the region to widen that program's reach, too. It's not known how many horseplayers have signed up for the program in New York, since there's no tracking of the types of gambling an individual participates in at sign-up.
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