One problem gambler is one too many. It’s a mantra I adopted during more than quarter-century in the commercial casino gaming-entertainment business, and it was often met with skepticism. Frankly, I can’t blame those who questioned my sincerity. After all, I represented the “industry.”
Fair enough. As Philadelphians and other Pennsylvanians have just experienced, any time casino gaming is discussed, there are a multitude of dueling “experts.” And nothing is more controversial than problem gambling. Making a decision on authorizing casinos raises serious questions about the issue.
Some of those questions have no empirical answers. For answers to questions such as “Is it right to support gambling when some people will be hurt?” or “Is it immoral to make gambling legal?” you need only consult your belief system.
However, there should be research-supported answers to other questions, such as: “What is the nature of this problem?” and “How many people have a problem, and to what degree?” One point everyone seems to be in agreement on is that there is a small percentage of people who cannot gamble responsibly.
Not long ago, decisions about gaming expansion, education, and prevention and treatment funding were being implemented without full understanding of the malady. We needed a science-based understanding, but it did not exist. Research was seriously flawed, not up to academic standards, and this presented problems for policymakers and voters. It was impossible to make informed decisions on the best use of the money being dedicated to problem gambling because information often conflicted. Moreover, elected officials and voters had no research to reference when making decisions regarding the expansion of gaming.
As recently as a decade ago, the government hardly recognized the issue, let alone spent dollars on research. That has changed markedly in recent years, in large part due to millions of dollars of private gaming industry-funded research - peer-reviewed academic research - that opened the eyes of government entities to the need for such endeavors.
This change came in large part from the founding by the industry - in concert with its trade association, the American Gaming Association - of my organization, the National Center for Responsible Gaming, in 1996. This is the only national organization devoted exclusively to funding peer-reviewed research on disordered gambling and to promoting public education about responsible gaming. So far, more than $15 million in donations from the industry is helping to fund research.
One of the first projects funded by the NCRG was research by Harvard University to determine the actual percentage of adults with gambling problems. That study, published in 1997, determined that the percentage of people with the most serious form of gambling problem was between 1.14 percent and 1.60, a percentage that has been confirmed repeatedly over the years by additional research. A June 2007 Harvard study of 40,499 participants in online sports gambling in Europe found that only 0.4 percent of the total sample could be classified as distinctively heavy bettors with large losses, suggesting that only a limited number of players might have serious financial problems.
The unprecedented growth of research on gambling disorders has also made it possible to translate this knowledge into practical tools to understand and promote responsible gaming. One such hands-on tool is Executive, Management and Employee Responsible Gaming Education, or EMERGE, an interactive, online training program for gaming employees. The program, developed primarily through funds provided by the NCRG, offers a curriculum on gambling disorders and responsible gaming that can be customized for any company in any gaming jurisdiction.
There are programs available to assist those who cannot gamble responsibly, too. The company I worked for, Harrah’s, pioneered the casino entertainment industry’s first responsible gaming efforts to help employees, guests, and the public understand the importance of responsible gaming and the prevention of underage gambling. These types of programs are now commonly employed by operators throughout the industry, as are “self-exclusion” programs that allow patrons to request to have all privileges, including play privileges, denied.
The experts are making progress in this field. They are producing peer-reviewed studies to help everyone better understand the challenges of responsible gambling and the best way to provide assistance. We are, then, applying science in ways to understand, treat and perhaps, eventually, defeat the problem.
Phil Satre is chairman of the National Center for Responsible Gaming (www.ncrg.org), based in Washington, and former chairman and CEO of Harrah’s Entertainment Inc.