By Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr.
When the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG) was established in 1996, gaming industry critics were skeptical of the motivations and credibility of a disordered gambling research organization funded by our industry. They claimed the NCRG was a self-serving venture that could never produce any legitimate progress toward addressing problem gambling in this country. Six years later, I am proud to say that we have proven them wrong. Today, the NCRG is the premier source of funding for ground-breaking disordered gambling research in this country.
Before discussing the accomplishments of the NCRG, a look back at the organization’s history is helpful in understanding the significant impact we have had in such a relatively short time. In the early 1990s, few entities or individuals had yet invested significant resources toward problem gambling research, and much of the information available on the subject was anecdotal at best, misleading at worst.
When the AGA was formed in 1995, we decided that this issue demanded top priority. We sought the advice of scientific experts who told us that the areas where we could make a difference were in funding research and public education. Just over a year later, with this mandate in mind, the AGA and its members founded the NCRG. Boyd Gaming Corporation provided the start-up funds, and other leading gaming companies, including Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc., International Game Technology, Mandalay Resort Group, MGM MIRAGE, Park Place Entertainment Corporation and Station Casinos, Inc., were early and generous supporters and played a key role in the development of the NCRG. In addition to funding independent scientific research, the organization also would promote public awareness of problem and youth gambling through conferences and other programs for researchers, treatment providers, gaming industry employees and public policy-makers.
Needless to say, there were plenty of skeptics. We knew that in an atmosphere where industry-funded studies would raise suspicions of bias, we needed to put in place a system that would ensure that 1) only the highest caliber research grants would be approved; 2) scientific experts, not industry representatives, would be responsible for making those decisions; and 3) scientists would have complete autonomy in conducting their research. All of this was a risk for the industry, but ultimately we believed that sound research would be our ally.
The NCRG’s grant-making system was structured after the highly regarded peer-review model utilized at the federal government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH). This model was so successful that the grant-making capabilities of the organization are now housed at Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions in a newly formed organization called the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders. The NCRG funds the Institute at Harvard while continuing its work to improve public awareness of disordered gambling.
Since its formation in 1996, the NCRG has advanced the field of problem gambling research to a new level, and some of the most influential scientific research organizations in the country have acknowledged the critical role of the NCRG in funding some of the most important scientific breakthroughs in the field.
In fact, one of the most significant research contributions by the NCRG was made possible through its very first grant award. In 1997, the NCRG funded a Harvard Medical School study on the prevalence of pathological gambling among individuals in the United States and Canada. The Harvard study found that approximately 1.1 percent of the population in the United States and Canada suffer from pathological gambling, a dramatic departure from earlier estimates that claimed up to four times as many Americans suffered the affliction. The results of that study were published in the prestigious American Journal of Public Health and, in a move that silenced many critics, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences acknowledged the results as the best current estimate of pathological and problem gambling among the general population. The data has since served as a landmark tool for other researchers.
Other NCRG-funded research projects have dramatically expanded our knowledge and understanding of gambling disorders. Thanks to the NCRG, we now have promising drug and behavioral treatment options; a new understanding of the brain’s reward system and of how dysfunction in this area can contribute to pathological gambling; further evidence of the genetic factor in pathological gambling; a greater understanding of the health risks of casino employees; and a clearer picture of how and why some adolescents develop gambling disorders.
All of these advances have been made possible through NCRG support, and these contributions have not gone unnoticed. Leading researchers have commended the NCRG for the breadth of its portfolio of funded projects, as well as for its large number of funded grants. And in 1999, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission acknowledged, ‘Perhaps surprising to some, the largest source of funding for research on problem and pathological gambling is the commercial casino industry.’
To date, the casino gaming industry and equipment manufacturers, vendors, related organizations and individuals have contributed more than $7 million to the NCRG. Since 1996 the NCRG has awarded $3.7 million to more than 20 leading research institutions in the United States and Canada and an additional $2.4 million to Harvard Medical School in support of the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders.
NCRG-funded research has been published in more than 40 peer-reviewed scientific publications and academic journals. New NCRG-funded studies are under way to examine the neurobiology of gambling disorders, problem gambling among youth, clinical trials of various treatment and prevention strategies as well as the genetic roots of disordered gambling.
NCRG’s accomplishments are not limited to its research functions. On the education front, the NCRG continues to sponsor various publications, workshops and youth initiatives that are changing the way people view problem gambling. Working with Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions, the NCRG recently unveiled a groundbreaking new curriculum focusing on the mathematics of gambling and other risks. The program, aimed at middle-school children, is designed to increase students’ interest in math and improve students’ critical thinking ability, number sense and knowledge of the mathematics of gambling so they can develop rational views about gambling and make informed choices when confronted with gambling opportunities.
Using sound science to lead its progress, the NCRG has developed a reputation as a trusted leader in funding significant research on the prevention and treatment of disordered gambling. Clearly, the achievements of the NCRG have proved the critics wrong. More importantly, the organization has made great strides in advancing the research field during the past six years. We are now in the midst of a record-setting fundraising campaign for the next five years that will take the NCRG in a new direction. It is exciting to imagine where the next few years may lead us. I will be providing you with more information in future columns regarding these new developments.