While some people assume that gambling disorders will increase if there is an expansion of gambling, the research is not at all conclusive on this topic. In fact, a significant body of research has reached the opposite conclusion.
A comparison of findings of two federal study commissions shows that, despite the dramatic expansion of gaming across the country in recent years, the prevalence rate of pathological gambling has remained relatively unchanged. According to the Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling, the U.S. pathological gambling prevalence rate was 0.77 percent in 1976, when casino gambling was legal only in the state of Nevada.(1) More than two decades later, with commercial and Native American casinos operating in approximately 30 states, gambling participation rates doubling and consumer spending exceeding $40 billion annually, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC) determined a similar prevalence rate of 0.6 percent.(2)
Further NGISC research conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (NORC) supports this finding. According to a random national survey, prevalence rates are not affected by distance to a casino. The NORC final report stated: “[W]e found little difference in the prevalence of at-risk gambling in the combined survey [patron and phone surveys], and differences in prevalence were not statistically significant in the RDD [phone] survey [alone].”(3)
Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminologist who directed a National Academy of Sciences panel commissioned by the NGISC to study pathological gambling, stated in testimony before the Maryland House of Delegates that expanded legal gambling opportunities in that state would not lead to significantly higher levels of pathological gambling and would generate revenues in excess of costs.(4)
Other independent commissions reached similar conclusions. A 2000 report by the Public Sector Gaming Impact Study Commission, a nonpartisan panel composed primarily of state and local public officials, also concluded that the level of pathological gambling cannot be linked to gambling expansion. It stated: “In short, there is no solid basis for concluding that the wider legalization of gambling, which has cut into illegal gambling and friendly betting, has caused a concomitant increase in pathological gambling. In fact, it appears that pathological gambling is quite rare within the general population, (and) it does not appear to be increasing in frequency.”(5)
Research conducted in many areas, both within the United States and internationally, has shown that the prevalence of pathological gambling has either remained stable or even decreased, despite the introduction of new gambling facilities. In a comprehensive 1999 survey of gambling in New Zealand, researchers concluded that the number of problem gamblers has dropped since 1991.(6) Similar results were found in a state government study that compared prevalence rates in Connecticut in 1991 versus 1996, noting, “… [P]robable pathological gambling rates may actually have fallen in Connecticut, and have certainly not risen, during a period in which one of the largest casinos in the world was opened in the state.”(7) Follow-up studies in Louisiana, South Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Washington, British Columbia and South Africa uncovered similar results.(8)
Further evidence to counter a link between gambling expansion and an increase in the prevalence of pathological gambling can be found in a 1997 meta-analysis by researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions. While the report did find that studies released from 1993 to 1997 showed a slightly higher prevalence rate than studies from 1974 to 1993, it does not say that expansion increased problems. If exposure were directly linked to the rate of pathological gambling, it should jump significantly during a period of such rapid expansion.
What the meta-analysis did find were no regional differences in the prevalence of gambling disorders.(9) This finding suggests that areas with a higher concentration of gambling opportunities do not experience higher levels of gambling disorders than other regions because of proximity.
The perfect test cases to determine whether or not increased exposure leads to increased problems are casino employees. In a comprehensive study conducted by Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions, researchers initially found higher levels of pathological gambling among casino employees than the general adult population. However, in one-year and two-year follow-up studies with the same group of casino employees, overall prevalence rates decreased over time, allowing the authors to suggest that gambling problems are not always progressive.(10)
An important—but frequently ignored—factor in assessing potential social impact is the rate of social problems in a community before the legalization of casino gambling. Casinos typically are approved as an economic stimulus to a community and therefore are located in areas that have higher rates of problems that often are influenced by poverty. Other new research shows that casinos decrease mental health problems by reducing the burdens of poverty. These are similarly related to distance from casinos.(11)
- Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling, Gambling in America (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1976), 73.
- National Opinion Research Center, et al., Gambling Impact and Behavior Study, report prepared for the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (Chicago: University of Chicago, April 1, 1999), 25.
- National Opinion Research Center, 28-29.
- Testimony of Charles Wellford before the Maryland House of Delegates, Annapolis, Md., Nov. 25, 2003, 3.
- Public Sector Gaming Study Commission, Gambling Policy and the Role of the State (Tallahassee, Fla.: Florida Institute of Government, Florida State University, March 2000), 50.
- Max Abbott and Rachel Volberg in association with Statistics New Zealand, Taking the Pulse on Gambling and Problem Gambling in New Zealand: A Report on Phase I of the 1999 National Prevalence Survey (Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Internal Affairs, June 2000).
- WEFA Group, A Study Concerning the Effects of Legalized Gambling on the Citizens of the State of Connecticut, report prepared for the State of Connecticut (Hartford, Conn.: Department of Revenue Services, Division of Special Revenue, June 1997), 9.
- See Michael O. Emerson and J. Clark Laundergan, “Gambling and Problem Gambling Among Adult Minnesotans: Changes 1990 to 1994,” Journal of Gambling Studies 12 (Fall 1996): 291-304; Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Gambling in Texas: 1995 Surveys of Adult and Adolescent Gambling Behavior (Austin, Texas: Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, 1996); Gemini Research, Ltd., Gambling and Problem Gambling in Washington State: A Replication Study, 1992 to 1998, report to the Washington State Lottery, May 11, 1999; Gemini Research, Ltd., Gambling and Problem Gambling in Louisiana: A Replication Study, 1995 to 1998, report to the College of Business Administration, University of New Orleans, March 31, 1999; and Rachel A. Volberg and Randall M. Stuefen, Gambling and Problem Gambling in South Dakota: A Follow-Up Survey (Vermillion, S.D.: Business Research Bureau, University of South Dakota, March 1994).
- Howard J. Shaffer, Matthew N. Hall and Joni Vander Bilt, Estimating the Prevalence of Disordered Gambling Behavior in the United States and Canada: A Meta-analysis (Boston: Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions, December 15, 1997), 47.
- Howard J. Shaffer, Joni Vander Bilt and Matthew N. Hall, “Gambling, Drinking, Smoking and Other Health Risk Activities Among Casino Employees,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine 36 (1999): 365-378, and Howard J. Shaffer and Matthew N. Hall, The Journal of Social Psychology 142, no. 4: 405-424.
- Personal correspondence with Howard Shaffer, Ph.D., director, Division on Addictions, Harvard Medical School, Sept. 4, 2002.