Op-Ed: Our State’s Problem Gamblers Deserve Support

COVID-19 might have closed casinos, but New Jersey residents are spending more money than ever on online gaming
Martin Lycka

During this pandemic, New Jersey has continuously set new monthly records for online gaming revenue. Given the increased amount of time that people are spending at home and the season-long closure of retail casinos, it’s not surprising.

While there hasn’t been a reported increase in problematic gambling behavior during the COVID-19 outbreak, there are several reasons why we need to take this increase in online gaming activity seriously. 

Impact of problem gambling

Despite the fact that a relatively small portion of New Jerseyans suffers from problematic gambling behavior, this issue is a crucial health concern that devastates everyone connected to an addict. The disease is manifested by increasing preoccupation with gambling, a need to bet more, loss of control and continued behavior in spite of mounting, serious consequences. From financial ruin to loss of career and family, or even suicide, there’s no limit to the damage that problem gambling can do.

Financial challenges

Millions of Americans meet the formal criteria for gambling addiction, and this is a group that can be triggered to engage in increasingly destructive behavior. One of the most commonly cited factors for problem gambling is financial difficulty, triggering the cycle of need, gain and loss — and in the throes of COVID-19, there’s no shortage to go around. Roughly 1.4 million New Jerseyans are seeking unemployment benefits, and while many cite a soaring stock market as a sign of economic recovery, almost half of all American families have no investment in the market.

Emotional triggers

It’s been well-established that factors leading to increased gambling behavior include job-related stress, loneliness, emotional upheavals and the presence of other addictions. Considering our current socioeconomic, political and cultural climate, it’s easy to imagine a potential or active problem gambler going even deeper.

Massive activity without mainstream sports

New Jerseyans gambled $86 million online in May, setting a new record for the state. Of that $86 million, just $10.03 million was bet on sports. We can’t reasonably predict when all major league sports will come back, but it’s crucial that we prepare for the eventuality that problem gamblers will find themselves with access to a deluge of once-enjoyed markets. When sports resume, 22 states and D.C. will take legal wagers — including New Jersey.

Responsible path forward

Of all entities accountable for ensuring the well-being of gambling consumers, individual companies are perhaps the most responsible. They create the markets, manage the platforms and facilitate the transactions that allow gamblers to stay active. It’s absolutely crucial that these operators address problem gambling, now more than ever — not only because of an ethical imperative, but also to ensure the industry’s ability to survive.

I strongly advise that gambling companies create more tools and resources to help limit the dangers of individual consumers who place bets. Bank account restrictions, dollar wager limits and self-exclusion tools need to be utilized to the fullest extent possible. Unlike an ‘80s casino on the strip, we have too much data at our disposal not to pay attention to it.

I’d further argue that any gambler trying to avoid engaging in excessive behavior deserves the right to not be swamped with advertisements. The industry’s gambling guidelines are well-defined and largely fair, but this is a particularly vulnerable time for gamblers, and operators must cut back on digital advertising.

We sit at a crucial point, not just for the development of New Jersey’s gambling industry, but for the health and well-being of the state’s gamblers. COVID-19 has drastically impacted every area of our lives, including betting markets and professional sports, and gambling companies need to chart the course with transparency and responsibility.