Online gambling: a concern during the pandemic
Calls to New Hampshire helplines for compulsive gamblers increased about 25% during 2020
New Hampshire lottery sales, particularly from online games, are surging during the pandemic, and with that increase comes a jump in another statistic — the number of problem gamblers who seek assistance for a disorder that can destroy lives.
The National Council on Problem Gambling received 443 calls to its 24-hour helpline (800-522-4700) from New Hampshire last year, compared to 337 in 2019. That’s an increase of 24%.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said there are valid concerns that the pandemic is worsening the problem of compulsive gambling. The problem is so severe that the organization released a statement on problem gambling during the pandemic.
“Social isolation, job loss, stress, depression — these are all known risk factors for gambling problems,” Whyte said.
Gambling overall has increased as well. In the current fiscal year, which began last July, New Hampshire’s online lottery sales were up 167.5% compared to the same time last year, while overall sales were up 27%, said Maura McCann, director of marketing for the lottery.
In addition to more people playing from home during the pandemic, there are more games available on the lottery’s online platform, and recent big jackpots have also likely contributed to sales increases.
“A very small percentage of gamblers – casino, lottery, horse/dog racing and more – are recognized as having an issue with gambling,” McCann said.
Nationally, it’s estimated that about 1% of adults are problem gamblers.
Ed Talbot, executive director of the New Hampshire Council on Problem Gambling, estimates there are about 8,000 compulsive gamblers in New Hampshire. Since the pandemic, he’s seen more people reaching out for help. Calls to the helpline run by the New Hampshire Council rose 25% in 2020, totaling 50 people. In January alone, seven people called the hotline. He estimates that for every problem gambler who calls, the helpline gets two calls from friends and family of problem gamblers.
“There are more people gambling,” Talbot said. “And there’s more awareness of our helpline.”
Online betting, credit use and advertising entice gamblers
Fifty-four years ago, New Hampshire became the first state to establish a lottery. Now, it’s leading the way for online gaming: in 2019, the New Hampshire Lottery began online sports betting, after allowing online lottery ticket sales beginning in 2018.
The New Hampshire lottery also allows people to use credit cards to play, something many other states do not allow in an attempt to prevent gamblers from accumulating unmanageable debt. Talbot said credit can get people into trouble.
“It’s easier to access funds,” said Talbot, a former problem gambler. “Me, as a racetrack bettor, if you didn’t have cash, you couldn’t make a bet. With casinos, you can just swipe a card and it’s the same thing online. You can max out. It’s almost like you’re not putting down real money.”
It may seem like the chance of winning a multimillion-dollar jackpot is only a credit card transaction away, and it’s fun to think of spending the money, but the actual odds of winning a Powerball grand prize are about one in 300 million. You’re much more likely to be hit by lightning.
Those who register online to play the New Hampshire Lottery are faced with two boxes. One must be checked to show the player is at least 18 years old. The other, already checked, says, “Yes, send me updates for free games, cash bonuses and other exclusive offers.”
Unless the registrant opts out, they will be sent emails giving them incentives to add money to their gambling account: “Exciting news … today with iLottery Dollar Deal$, you can choose how many dollars you want! Get $5 iLottery Dollars when you deposit $30 or more.”
Whyte said aggressive marketing can be a problem.
“People with gambling problems are more vulnerable to advertising and marketing,” he said. “If you have a gambling problem, or are at risk, it can increase urges to gamble. It can lead to relapse if you are in recovery from gambling conditions, and generally prompts you to play more.”
Support for problem gamblers
The 2019 legislation also created the Council for Responsible Gambling to promote education, prevention and treatment of problem gambling. The council is funded with up to $250,000 per fiscal year, as an administrative expense of the lottery commission. However, the council has spent little to date, said McCann, who chairs the council, in addition to being lottery marketing director.
“The council, made up of volunteers, meets quarterly, and between establishing the new council and then the pandemic struck, those funds were not used,” she said. “This year, the funding has been established at $100,000 and a Request for Proposal to build services is publicly available.”
The goal will be to build capacity for gambling-related clinical, prevention and intervention services.
In the meantime, assistance like Talbot’s helpline and the national helpline are there for people who find they are gambling too much.
Talbot warns friends and family of these gamblers not to enable the behavior.
“I have two suggestions,” he said. “First, they must do everything they can to support the decision not to gamble. Don’t give them money and a license to go back at it. And try to get the person to give me a call.”
A big step for the compulsive gambler is acknowledging the issue.
Symptoms of a problem could be a preoccupation with gambling, wagering with increasing amounts of money, feeling the need to be secretive or lie, and causing friends and family to worry about the activity.
Many are in denial and think they are just suffering an economic problem that can be reversed with a winning bet. Talbot counsels people about the danger of “chasing,” or trying to get back lost money by gambling more. Compulsive gamblers may go to extremes and even break the law to get more betting money.
“It’s rare that a person doesn’t seek recovery without a nudge, or a push,” said Talbot.
Talbot, 78, placed his last bet on Nov. 30, 1977, at a dog track in Taunton, Mass.
He had accumulated a mountain of gambling debt but gathered what little money he had left, about $20, and bet it on a greyhound named Perfect Treasure. The dog stumbled at the start and never had a chance.
A win might have persuaded Talbot to keep on gambling. Friends and family told him he had a problem and he had tried unsuccessfully to stop. Now he had reached a new low. He even considered ending his life before turning to a local priest and starting his path to recovery.
He went to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.
“I saw several men I knew from school, sports and the track and they guided me through the first weeks of recovery with their phone calls, coffee visits, meetings, meetings and more meetings,” he said.
For Talbot, the true winning bet was seeking help. He went on to a successful career in corrections administration and enjoys a life that includes a loving family and caring friends. It took him eight years to pay off his debts.
“I am asked frequently how I do it, and it begins with asking for help,” he said. “I was never able to stop on my own; willpower wouldn’t work. What works for me is a four-pronged approach: the 12-step fellowship, professional help, an intimate relationship with my higher power who I choose to call God, and a change of lifestyle have combined to bring me to a serenity I could not imagine.”
That lifestyle change involved eating right and exercising, including running marathons.
Talbot has personally known four people who went to prison for reasons related to their gambling.
One of them was Gloria, 71, a wife, mother and grandmother who shared her story about how her life fell apart because of gambling. Gloria served 16 months in jail after stealing from her boss, before receiving help from Gamblers Anonymous, a 12-step recovery program.
“When it all came out, my family was blindsided because they had no idea of the extent of my gambling or what I had done in order to gamble,” she said.
Even Gloria had a hard time seeing how severe her compulsion was.
“I never thought I had a gambling problem. I felt it was under my control when in reality gambling was controlling me,” she said.
Only in hindsight could she see how much compulsive gambling had impacted her life.
“I will always feel guilty for the things I did to feed my gambling habit and the harm I did to others, especially those I loved and who loved me.”
This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. If you or a loved one is struggling with problem gambling, these organizations may be able to help: National Council on Problem Gambling, ncpgambling.org, 1-800-522-4700; New Hampshire Council on Problem Gambling, nhproblemgambling.org, 603-724-1605 or Gamblers Anonymous, gamblersanonymous.org.