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Study: Mixed results for 'at risk' gamblers after Massachusetts casinos opened

Inside MGM Springfield.
Don Treeger
The Republican / masslive.com/photos
Inside MGM Springfield.

A state-commissioned study has found a significant number of previously compulsive gamblers returned to problem behavior after casinos opened in Massachusetts, although many have also improved.

The study, called the Massachusetts Gambling Impact Cohort (MAGIC), was presented to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on October 7. The research was mandated as part of the state law legalizing casinos in 2011.

About 3,000 Massachusetts residents filled out questionnaires over a six-year period, from 2013 to 2019. 

The research ended four years after the slots parlor opened in Plainridge in 2015, but only one year after the MGM Springfield casino opened in 2018. The study stopped before the opening of Encore Boston Harbor.

Researchers found that the number of respondents gambling at casinos stayed constant — about a third of the group. What changed was that half of them stopped going to out-of-state casinos and gambled in Massachusetts instead. There was no decrease in lottery ticket sales.

The study charted how often someone moved from one gambling group to another. For instance, from not gambling at all to gambling recreationally, or from being “at risk” of problem gambling — mostly because of past problems — to actually becoming a compulsive gambler.

Out of those considered “at risk,” about 20% became problem gamblers again after the casinos opened.

But about twice as many of them went back to more moderate gambling, labeled “recreational” gamblers in the study. Recreational gambling is considered a healthy behavior by study authors.

“Problem gamblers and at-risk gamblers do move back and forth a lot,” said Rachel Volberg of UMass Amherst, one of the study’s authors. “And what that means is that there are actually lots of opportunities and lots of tools that can be deployed to try to minimize and mitigate gambling harms as they occur.”

Volberg said men were more susceptible to problem gambling than women, and people with lower incomes were more vulnerable than people with higher incomes.

The report came with several policy recommendations, including limiting casino advertising in low-income neighborhoods. 

“I recognize that this is maybe difficult to achieve or to wrap our arms around in terms of policy,” Mark Vander Linden, head of research for the gaming commission, told regulators Thursday. “But if we know that individuals in lower socioeconomic groups, or there are specific groups that are at greater risk, we should take a look at what factors may exist within the community that we can have an influence over.”

Some gaming commission members said they were not ready to weigh in on a new advertising policy without knowing more about existing advertising. 

Commissioner Gayle Cameron said the group had previously considered banning certain interactive MGM ads, but that the casino independently dropped its plans to erect them.

“I'm wondering how we could gather this information, reports to the commission of inflammatory advertising, something that really is harmful, whether it be to young people or, you know, in those kinds of neighborhoods,” Cameron said. “I mean, I know there's some on buses, but...I don't know if there's a way to collect that information so...we would have information to act, to act on.”

Vander Linden also suggested stepping up efforts to let gamblers know about options to limit their casino gambling, such as a “voluntary exclusion” list, which currently has about 1,000 names, or cutting off one’s ability to get money from on-site ATM machines.

“I think the findings would suggest that perhaps we want to offer greater flexibility in the types of controls that players can implement for themselves,” Vander Linden said.

Other policy recommendations included monitoring alcohol serving policies at casinos, and increasing access to counselors in the community who know how to treat gambling addiction.

“I think that it would make a lot of sense to kind of help mental health clinicians generally, and the mental health system more broadly,” Vander Linden said, “[to] increase their capacity to understand and treat this.”

Volberg suggested adding gambling addiction screenings to the therapy protocol, since problem gamblers often don’t seek help proactively. 

“There's some opportunities there that we could think about,” Gaming Commission Chair Cathy Judd-Stein said. “And right now, there's such good awareness of the need for mental health resources. So the time might be perfect.”

Marlene Warner heads the Massachusetts Council on Gaming and Health, a nonprofit that has offered therapist training on gambling addiction. 

Although Warner couldn’t say how many trained counselors are available, she wrote in an email Thursday that the state should expand clinical and community services, including cultural and linguistically appropriate services. 

“It is also paramount to envision innovative approaches to therapeutic services as the policy makers consider further expanding gambling in the Commonwealth,” Warner wrote.

Since the study only included data through June 2019, some commission members questioned why the research did not continue longer. Vander Linden said the study contract period had run its course.

“I agree the timing wasn’t great, but for a variety of reasons, the study had to terminate when it did,” he said.

Volberg pointed out that more recent data would have been skewed by the COVID-19 pandemic anyway, since the casinos were either closed or operating at reduced capacity for more than a year.

However, a larger survey of approximately 8,000 people, which looks at gambling behavior among the general Massachusetts population, is still ongoing. Volberg said results are expected within the next one and a half years.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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