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Push for legal sports betting in Connecticut raises thorny questions about gambling addiction

Push for legal sports betting in Connecticut raises thorny questions about gambling addiction
As Connecticut legislators consider whether to legalize sports betting, they're left to weigh the dangers of gambling addiction, which already affects an estimated 35,000 people in Connecticut. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant) (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

Before Adam Osmond was an addict whose life had been upended by gambling, he was just a guy buying a scratch ticket.

At the time, Osmond owned a gas station and a convenience store in New Britain, giving him easy access to lottery games. So he spent $1 here and $2 there. Then $5 and $10. Then more and more. Soon, he was coughing up serious cash from the confines of his own stores.

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“It was like owning your own little casinos," he said. "And eventually I became one of my best customers and one of the best customers for the Connecticut Lottery.”

Before long, Osmond had become a full-blown addict, gambling away nearly everything he owned. He lost his stores, had his house foreclosed on and hit what he calls “the bottom of the bottom.”

So when he heard last year that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned a federal ban on sports betting and Connecticut was among the states lining up to legalize the industry, Osmond grew concerned. Legal sports betting, especially through mobile apps, would make gambling accessible to more people than ever. And inevitably, some of those people would join an estimated 35,000 Connecticut adults who can be classified as problem gamblers.

Amid a debate over sports betting that has focused largely on how the industry might benefit Connecticut’s bottom line, problem-gambling advocates, and some lawmakers, have begun to worry that the human costs of expanding legal gambling have been forgotten or overlooked.

“People are just talking about the revenue,” said Michele Mudrick of the Coalition Against Casino Expansion in Connecticut. “But there are a lot of societal factors that play into this.”

Some advocates, including Osmond and Mudrick, believe Connecticut should refrain from legalizing sports betting, even if it means sacrificing some potential revenue. Others simply ask that any sports betting legislation includes robust funding to help prevent and treat gambling addiction.

Both camps agree that addiction must be part of the debate around sports betting.

“Everyone talks about the jackpots and winning and how it’s going to create jobs and how it’s going to bring revenue to the state," Osmond said. "But there’s also a dark side.”

Sports fans watch NFL games at Bobby V's in Stamford, one of 16 Sportech-owned properties that offer off-track betting in Connecticut. (Hartford Courant file photo)
Sports fans watch NFL games at Bobby V's in Stamford, one of 16 Sportech-owned properties that offer off-track betting in Connecticut. (Hartford Courant file photo)
A damaging addiction

Though problem gambling was once considered a compulsion rather than an addiction, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now classifies it in the same category as other addictive disorders. In fact, research has found that gambling addiction activates the same parts of the brain as drug dependency, compromising impulse control and triggering physical cravings.

Like other forms of addiction, problem gambling emerges from a combination of risk factors, including genetic predisposition, reward-seeking behavior and access to casinos or other operators. Often, bettors don’t know that they’re prone to addiction until they can no longer control their urges.

Gambling addiction is an issue in Connecticut as much as elsewhere, with an estimated 1.1 percent of the state’s adult population manifesting a gambling problem. Diana Goode, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, says those addicts typically blend into the general population, allowing the wider population to ignore or overlook them.

“It’s really hard to tell who the compulsive gambler is in the room," Goode said. "And often you can’t recognize it until all the money has been wiped out.”

Although many people who bet on sports legally in Connecticut would be those who already bet on sports illegally, experts say legalization would inevitably open the industry to new bettors, some of whom will be prone to addiction. A 2015 UMass survey of nearly 10,000 adults in Massachusetts found that 5.7 percent of those who bet on sports were problem gamblers — a considerably higher rate than that of lottery players or casinogoers.

Any spike in gambling addiction could be particularly severe if Connecticut introduces digital sports betting, says Richard Daynard, president of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University’s law school. Daynard says betting through mobile apps (as is allowed in Nevada and New Jersey) would greatly increase the number of people exposed to potential addiction. Digital platforms could allow bettors to wager on events as they occur, with ever-changing odds and hyperspecific bets.

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“People who really, really know they want to gamble can find a way to do it [now],” Daynard said. “But [legal betting] is bringing in the people who weren’t going to do it when you was illegal and you had to know somebody, find a bookie somewhere. Now you make it easily available to everybody, and it means a lot more people are going to do it, and a good percentage of them are going to do it in a way that’s pathological, that’s going to bankrupt them and bankrupt their families.”

Daynard points out that while problem gamblers make up a relatively small percentage of total bettors, they generate an outsized share of the industry’s revenue. Legalizing sports betting, he said, would essentially amount to pulling money from addicts’ pockets.

“You’re taxing people who are most susceptible to [addiction],” Daynard said. “You may not know in advance who they are, but whoever they are, it means you’re draining the resources from a substantial group of your citizens who turn out to be very susceptible.”

Parimutuel gamblers examine betting opportunities at Twin River Casino in Rhode Island. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)
Parimutuel gamblers examine betting opportunities at Twin River Casino in Rhode Island. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant) (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)
A need for services

While Daynard argues that little good can come from legalized sports betting, others see a way for states to fight problem gambling even while allowing more people to place wagers.

Timothy Fong, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, cites a gambling-addicted patient who fell into debt with bookies he didn’t know well and now worries he’ll face physical violence if he fails to pay up. If sports betting were legal, Fong said, that person could work with the operators to settle his debt, while receiving services for his addiction.

“It’s not that we’re going to celebrate and want gambling," Fong said. "But we’re going to accept the fact that humans want to do this, and we’re going to create a safe and legalized regulated gambling entertainment market.”

Although Connecticut currently ranks eighth nationally in per-capita spending on problem gambling services, advocates say there’s room to do more. Goode hopes Connecticut will follow Massachusetts in creating a gaming commission to oversee all gambling and asks that between 1 percent and 3 percent of revenue from sports betting go toward treatment and prevention. She also supports a consistent minimum age for gambling, as opposed to the status quo in which casinogoers must be 21 but lottery players can be 18.

In Fong’s view, states shouldn’t legalize sports betting in hopes of a revenue windfall but should do so for the sake of bringing a black-market industry above board and helping those at risk of addiction.

“It makes sense when you have science-based legislation attached to it," he said. "When, for instance, you have a dedicated portion of the revenue going back to prevention, education, treatment, harm minimization.”

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Over the course of two lengthy public safety committee hearings during this legislative session, lawmakers have weighed logistical questions about who should operate sports betting and what kind of revenue the industry might bring to Connecticut. But they have also heard testimony — from Goode, Mudrick and others — about the risks of increased problem gambling.

Public safety committee chairman Rep. Joe Verrengia says it’s essential that lawmakers consider how to address addiction within any sports-betting legislation.

“It’s my goal at the end of the day to have one of most robust problem-gaming policies in the country,” said Verrengia, who also supports the creation of a gaming commission. “It’s more important than ever that we have a robust problem-gambling program given how accessible the expansion of gaming is going to be, particularly when we get to mobile platforms.”

After overcoming a gambling addiction, Adam Osmond has run hundreds of races, including marathons and ultra-marathons. (Hartford Courant file photo)
After overcoming a gambling addiction, Adam Osmond has run hundreds of races, including marathons and ultra-marathons. (Hartford Courant file photo) (Cloe Poisson)

On Tuesday, the public safety committee heard testimony about several bills, including one that would legalize sports betting through the casinos, the lottery and off-track betting locations, with digital offerings as well as brick-and-mortar ones. Goode says the bill has some positive attributes from a problem-gambling perspective (such as requirements that webpages “conspicuously” share information on responsible gambling) but also some problems. As currently written, it promises one-half of one percent of gambling revenues to the five Regional Behavioral Health Action Organizations designated by the Commissioner of Mental Health and Addiction Services, but does not earmark money for services specifically related to problem gambling.

A separate bill, which Goode says she supports, would designate 25 percent of all new gaming revenue to problem-gambling services, including 5 percent to the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling.

Osmond remains unconvinced. After years of addiction, he kicked his habit in part by becoming a long-distance runner, competing in hundreds of races, including marathons and ultra-marathons. He says he has not placed a bet or even bought a raffle ticket since 2008 and refuses to apply for races that choose entrants through a lottery drawing.

He now fears for Connecticut residents who don’t know they’re prone to develop a gambling problem but could soon be swept into the addiction that nearly destroyed his life.

“I don’t think anyone ever imagines they could get addicted," Osmond said. "They think they can control it, but it gets to a point where it takes you over.”

Alex Putterman can be reached at aputterman@courant.com.

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