With nearly every brick-and-mortar casino in the country shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, public health proponents are worried that the shift to online gambling could lead to an increase in problem gambling.
On March 16, Governor Phil Murphy ordered Atlantic City’s nine casinos to close indefinitely, but has allowed online gambling to continue. Experts in the industry anticipate an increase in online gambling activity due to the closures of retail casinos; that increase in internet gaming has gambling addiction experts worried.
Experts weigh in on how COVID-19 could impact those with a gambling addiction
“We think all of the risk factors for problem gambling is increasing right now,” observed Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
The fact is, the social distancing recommended by government health officials worsens underlying conditions such as isolation, loneliness, and depression, that contribute to problem behaviors, Whyte said.
“It’s like a perfect storm,” Whyte said. “Both the quarantine and casino closures could increase risk factors. Right now, there is a shift to online gambling, which may actually have higher risk factors. Furthermore, the impact on state budgets allocated for gambling addiction programs and resources could disproportionately impact behavioral health services that are available.”
While academic studies have shown that most people who gamble can do so responsibly, the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates 2% to 3% of Americans have some form of problem gambling.
Moreover, a report published by the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University indicated that the rate of problem gambling behaviors and disorders increases for online players.
Some gamblers, like Devy Goodrich, of Philadelphia, are very aware of the potential trap online gambling poses. Goodrich said he would prefer to wait for Atlantic City’s casinos to reopen than risk gambling online.
“I think that online gambling is more addictive than in-house because of the fact that you are more able to pull out of your account. You can take better precautions when you have your ATM card in your wallet,” he said.
New Jersey’s growing problem
Internet gambling in New Jersey has steadily grown ever since it was legalized more than six years ago. In 2014, which was the first full year of online gambling, revenue was less than 5% of the gaming industry’s annual total. But by 2019, revenue from online gambling, which doesn’t including online sports betting, grew to nearly 15% of the industry’s total. 2019’s $482.7 million revenue for internet gambling was close to 62% higher than the previous year’s total.
Neva Pryor, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, is very worried about problem gamblers during the COVID-19 lockdown. She pointed out that, some might use gambling as an escape. That is common with all addictive behaviors.
“Many people are going to reach out to gambling. Likewise, they’re going to reach out to alcohol, drugs and other activities that might be harmful, and then come out of this with a problem,” Pryor said.
Online gambling in New Jersey provides users with tools to help reduce those problems, Pryor pointed out. State regulations include self-exclusion lists, and most internet gaming sites operating in the state allow players to limit how often and how much they gamble.
The Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey has also established new ways to help those who are prone to problem gambling during the pandemic. These include webinars, teletherapy, social media and conducting Gamblers Anonymous meetings over the phone.
“We had to reinvent ourselves,” Pryor said. “I would propose that there’s more help now than before, because we’re constantly putting our message out there.”
The coronavirus pandemic will not completely change a gambler’s behavior, even when the retail casinos remain closed. Many gamblers are sure they can keep playing online, and they believe it could even fatten their bankroll.
Andrea Marano Mercer, of Brick Township, Ocean County, said, “I gamble online nearly every weekend if I don’t go to Atlantic City. I actually spend less. If I’m in the City, it’s more enticing to spend more money. At home, I can simply turn off the computer and walk away.”