Addiction In Mind, Massachusetts Gaming Officials Mull Stricter Advertising Regulations

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Massachusetts state gaming officials are weighing new recommendations to curb some troubling impacts of advertising, with an eye on the booming sports betting industry as a particular risk for younger and problem gamblers.

Current state regulations around gaming advertising – in recent years targeted specifically at sports betting – include limitations on false or misleading advertising, limiting the intensity and frequency of advertising, and requiring inclusion of messages about where to obtain help in all advertising and marketing materials.

At the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s meeting on June 20, researchers released a literature study that laid out the advertising landscape and their agenda heading into the next fiscal year, which began July 1. They spoke about the risks of oversaturated advertising environments across gaming options, but were most pointed about the soaring popularity of online sports betting.

Rachel Volberg, one of the researchers, recommended limiting advertising for higher-risk games, which often have a higher incidence of problem gambling, and limiting promotion of gaming for specific purposes like supporting “good causes.” 

It would also be wise, she said, to require that inducements not create a sense of urgency, be limited in value, and be offered only when customers are opening an account.

Additionally, she advised restricting celebrity endorsements to reduce their appeal to young people and problem gamblers. Volberg emphasized the importance of monitoring emerging forms of advertising on social media platforms, which can be more insidious and harder to regulate.

Derived from a literature review, available gambling data, and online panel surveys from the last few years, the gambling advertising study highlighted a notable shift towards digital gaming advertising, including targeted promotions and pervasive social media campaigns. 

As much as consumers sometimes bristle against the suggestion, Volberg noted, gambling advertising significantly affects their behavior, often encouraging increased participation.

Though most of the literature on advertising on vices focused on alcohol and tobacco, Volberg said, “advertising generally emphasizes the positive experiences of use and downplays potentially negative aspects. The amount of positive advertising completely swamps any advertising on risks or on the availability of help.” These forms of advertising particularly affect at-risk and problem gamblers, she said.

The gaming researchers have run online panels for several years, in which Massachusetts residents sign up to participate and offer insight into their gambling habits. Volberg noted that this introduces some bias – more participation from heavy gamblers than a random sample of residents – but said those biases “can be a feature, not a bug.” 

Though the panels are not representative of the state as a whole, they offer researchers access to a large number of people who have experienced gambling problems, she said, “to understand those problems in a much more fine-grained way than we can with the population surveys.”

In their panels from 2014, 2022, and 2023, the study found problem gamblers were the most likely to say they saw a significant amount of gambling advertising and it made them gamble more. The panels also identified news coverage on gambling, communications from casino associations, and targeted promotions as contributors to increased gambling. 

Implementing the gambling advertising recommendations is not a straightforward proposition. Commissioner Brad Hill highlighted the legal constraints, asking, “What is it we really can do that would benefit the consumer, but at the same time, as we’ve already talked about, not push them into the illegal market?” By making gambling too restrictive, commissioners said, it opens up the possibility of off-book options offering more attractive incentives. 

It seemed to Hill that the alcohol and tobacco industries face substantial advertising restrictions that are a much harder lift for gambling regulators.

Volberg said she was surprised to learn in her research that those vice industries actually have very few advertising regulations generally, and those in the tobacco space largely came into effect because of lawsuits that led to judicial orders or settlements. The United States is an anomaly when it comes to drug advertising, she noted, as the only country that allows direct-to-consumer ads for pharmaceutical drugs.

There was concern at a recent gaming conference about federal intervention into gambling advertising, commissioners noted, but there is some latitude between what the state commission can impose and needed federal action. 

Commissioner Jordan Maynard said an initial step might involve talking to the gaming operators and telling them “some work on this front would go a long way.” The operators themselves are working on a state-by-state compliance system right now. With the state-by-state irregularities and uncertainty about what authority state regulators have without careening into First Amendment violations, Maynard said the latest advertising study was launched because “we want to make sure that no one’s being taken advantage of here.”

Commissioner Eileen O’Brien echoed these concerns, noting, “Europe bans celebrity endorsements and there’s a question of – given cross-state jurisdictions and how that works in terms of advertising – what we can do.” 

With regard to limiting high-intensity inducement models aimed at bringing new players onto gambling platforms, there may be consumer protection angles available to them, she said. There may be regulations that could address gift cards for gambling or restricting incentives to use “bonus points” within a certain time frame. 

Creating minimum periods of time over which someone could make bonus bets might “create more problem gambling by extending the interaction with the web site,” she mulled, or it could “pull back on the intensity and the urge to use it all. So that’s a question that I have in my head in terms of whether that could backfire as a regulation.”

The report noted online panel respondents who use illegal sport books in Massachusetts jumped from 4 percent in 2022 to 18 percent in 2023, after sports betting was legalized. Given that this data indicates a desire for products outside the legal market, O’Brien said, she is looking forward to watching these numbers as more recent policy changes take hold.

Researchers briefly touched on the Massachusetts Lottery – still the dominant gambling enterprise in the state – to note that, unlike almost every other type of gaming, it had not seen a major jump in participation over the year based on their panels. That, Volberg said, was largely because participation was already very high.

The state lottery is not under the purview of the gaming commission, but its advertising reach remains a point of some political tension. In her proposed budget, Governor Maura Healey allocated $10 million to Lottery advertising, which the Massachusetts House of Representatives reduced to $7 million. The Massachusetts Senate not only opted for a $5 million Lottery advertising budget, but also again broke with the governor and House by excluding a proposed online Lottery expansion. The chambers will hash out their differences in a conference committee.

Gaming commissioners considered the next round of research areas, including an expanded online panel survey focusing on young adults and their sports betting behaviors, aligning with similar studies by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. A study of the impact of paid media on awareness and participation in sports betting among college students is in progress, dovetailing with the advertising research agenda.

Researchers plan to re-evaluate the voluntary self-exclusion program, updated to include new online self-exclusion options, and conduct a positive play study to assess healthy gambling behaviors following the launch of sports wagering. Some 15 earlier research projects are under way, with a two-year study on sex trafficking in casinos recently awarded to the Safe Exit Initiative.

More research into the frequency and “dose” of gambling advertising is a missing piece, Vander Linden acknowledged. They can get a good sense of the effect, but tying that effect to the amount of advertising would be a useful link.

“Early on, when sports wagering launched in Massachusetts, there was this inundation, this over-saturation of advertising,” commissioner Nakisha Skinner said. “And so I’m really interested in digging into what the landscape is today – if there’s a way to measure the intensity now, the frequency now, and really tie that to what effect that may have on problem gamblers in our future discussions. About how to move forward, I just think that there’s some data that we don’t have in order to understand the big picture here.”

This article first appeared on CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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