Let’s Get Real About Gambling

March is an important month for the gambling industry. Recognized as Problem Gambling Awareness Month, it also signals the start of March Madness — the eagerly awaited NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. 

According to the American Gaming Association, 45 million people were estimated to have wagered a combined total of $3.1 billion on the tournament in 2022. And with the recent legalization of sports betting in Massachusetts, this March is likely to see an increase in the number of wagers since last year. 

Gambling is pervasive across the U.S., bolstered by a culture that celebrates “big risk, big reward” behavior. Problem gambling has become a real threat to public health, as it can be cooccurring with other types of addiction and mental health issues. Surveys conducted by the Department of Public Health reveal that, in Massachusetts alone, 83,000+ adults have a gambling problem, and 390,000+ are at-risk gamblers

Thanks to our ongoing partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Office of Problem Gambling Services (OPGS), we know that getting to the root of problem gambling goes beyond individual responsibility. 

Our goal isn’t only to help individuals who are already suffering from a gambling addiction. We also focus on prevention to achieve fewer cases of problem gambling overall, and that requires a public health perspective that puts the social determinants of health front and center.

Here are three ways that we, as individuals and institutions, can play a role in reducing the prevalence of problem gambling:

Name it. We need to get real about gambling — in all its forms. When most people think of gambling, they think of slot machines at casinos, but it’s important to openly address that online gaming, buying lottery or scratch tickets, and even betting on an office pool are all forms of gambling, and can all lead to problem gambling for some.

Ask ‘why?’ We’ve made it difficult to talk honestly about gambling, which prevents us from having an effective response. It’s critical for those inside and outside of the gambling industry to have frank, regular conversations about individual risk, mental health, and community impact. We need to address why some people  – especially people of color – are at a higher risk for problem gambling. Plus, we should talk about why there are such acute gaps in access to behavioral and mental health prevention, treatment, and recovery services for historically underserved and marginalized communities. 

A study out of the Gambling Research Exchange in Ontario found that Native American and Black individuals are at a higher risk for problem gambling compared to White individuals in the U.S — and that alcohol use and neighborhood disadvantage play a central role in the onset of problem gambling.

Educate yourself and others. The first step to supporting priority populations, and to addressing the social and environmental factors of problem gambling, is widely disseminating resources that can help protect them and the people they love. With problem gambling stemming from blatant health inequities, the prevention, treatment, research and recovery work must be built on a foundation of equity. This is the truly responsible way to live with gambling in Massachusetts.

Watch for signs. No matter who you are, you can experience problem gambling. Even if it starts out as a pastime or entertainment, gambling can negatively impact you and the people you care about — financially, socially, and emotionally. If we’re honest about the risks and address social and structural factors, our knowledge has the power to protect us from harm, now and in the future. Learn more about the signs of problem gambling at mass.gov/ProblemGambling.

OPGS’s Let’s Get Real About Gambling campaign will be rolling out over the coming weeks. You can learn more about this and other problem gambling initiatives here

Worried about your own gambling?

To speak with a trained Problem Gambling Specialist call: 800-327-5050

Find a recovery center near you.

You can find information regarding voluntary self-exclusion from casinos here.