Professor briefs lawmakers on problem gambling study results

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STATE HOUSE — An estimated 88,000 adults in Massachusetts are problem gamblers, and another 390,000 are deemed “at-risk” gamblers and may bet more than they’d planned or borrow money to gamble, according to study findings presented Wednesday.

Research required under the 2011 law that legalized casino gambling in Massachusetts found that 1.7 percent of that state’s adult population were considered problem gamblers and 7.5 percent were at-risk gamblers, said Rachel Volberg, the study’s principal investigator.

A UMass-Amherst professor who specializes in gambling research, Volberg presented findings from a baseline study of the Massachusetts population, conducted from September 2013 to May 2014, before the state’s first slot parlor opened in Plainville. Additional research will be conducted as resort casinos authorized under the terms of the 2011 law – two are under construction – move forward and open for business.

Enrique Zuniga, one of five members of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, described the research project as “very ambitious” and “something that has never been done before in the world, mostly because we’re looking at it before and after the introduction of casinos.”

The survey found that, with no casinos yet open in the state, 27.5 percent of the state’s population were non-gamblers and 63.4 percent were recreational gamblers who find betting enjoyable and do not experience harm from it.

Volberg said there were “significant differences” in problem gambling rates based on race, gender and level of education attained.

“Men are three times more likely to have a gambling problem than women, blacks are four times more likely to have a gambling problem than whites, and individuals with a high school diploma or less are twice as likely to have a gambling problem compared with individuals with a college degree,” she said during a briefing on the research for lawmakers and staff.

The baseline survey also gauged respondents’ attitudes toward gambling, finding that 57.5 percent believed some forms of gambling should be legal while others should be illegal, and that 63.1 percent believed the current availability of gambling in Massachusetts was fine. Around 22 percent said not enough gambling was available in Massachusetts, while nearly 15 percent said it was too widely available.

Seventy-two percent of respondents had participated in at least one gambling activity in the past year, with the state lottery the most popular. According to the survey, 59 percent played lottery games, 32 percent participated in raffles, 22 percent visited a casino, and 13 percent bet on sports. Only 2 percent said they gambled online.

After the emergence of popular daily fantasy sports websites like the Massachusetts-based DraftKings, lawmakers have expressed interest in exploring and further regulating both daily fantasy sports and the broader world of online gaming. Lottery officials have unsuccessfully sought legislative authorization to offer their products on the internet, pointing to stagnant instant ticket sales as more and more bettors choose to wager on daily fantasy sports or elsewhere.

An economic development law Gov. Charlie Baker signed last month created a special commission to study the regulation of online gaming, fantasy sports gaming and daily fantasy sports, including “economic development, consumer protection, taxation, legal and regulatory structures, implications for existing gaming, burdens and benefits to the commonwealth and any other factors the commission deems relevant.”

“We continue to think about expanded gaming, whether we’re talking about online lottery, whether we’re talking about different types of online sports gambling, other things,” Marlene Warner, the executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, said during the briefing. “I think it’s important for us to be paying attention to the data that we have currently around gambling that currently exists in Massachusetts.”

— Written by Katie Lannan

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