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Sports Betting Is the ‘New Oxycontin’

The online gambling industry is profiting off addiction ‘the same way the Sackler family profited off of opioids.’ Only this time the pushers include state governments.

Brian misses the old days of gambling, when it was still illegal and the worst that could happen was some goon might have your legs broken.

That was five years ago.

The 27-year-old network engineer from Queens, New York—he declined to share his last name out of fear of losing his job—would bet a few grand every week. A little poker. Maybe the casinos. Usually, it was the NBA or Major League Baseball. He’d win, he’d lose. The most he ever owed was $30,000 to a loan shark with ties to a Chinese crime syndicate. “He definitely wasn’t somebody you wanted to owe money to,” Brian told me. They hashed out a payment plan so Brian could keep betting—with the understanding that a late payment might land him in a cast.

All that seems quaint compared to the new era of legal sports betting. No longer does one require an under-the-table bookie to place a bet. Now, you can lose staggering amounts of money just by downloading an app.

“A few weeks ago, I was out with friends at a restaurant, and while they were telling stories, I was staring at my lap and betting on my phone,” Brian messaged me. (I’d found him the same way I found other gambling addicts, on Reddit, which offers a forum for problem gamblers.) 

The ease with which gamblers can place bets means they’re wagering a lot more than they used to. “I was 300k in debt not too long ago,” he said. “I was up 200k just last month but I lost it all and now I’m over 100k in debt again.”

The NHL finals—which started this month and will conclude June 3 with the Stanley Cup Final—means countless bettors across the country will be laser focused on the Boston Bruins. Sports Betting Dime, which helps bettors “bet confidently on any matchup,” reports the hockey team is the “clear favorite” this year. 

Even bigger is the NBA Finals, which will start June 1 and end June 18. As sports bettors are aware, another Boston team, the Celtics, are “favored” to dominate there, too. (Brian doesn’t bet on hockey, but he’s gambled boatloads on basketball.)

Gambling has cost Brian not only a great deal of money but his girlfriend—she moved out after he gambled away their rent money one time too many—and his parents, who no longer talk to him. And, he said, it’s led him to dabble in various illegal side hustles to subsidize his now-legal obsession. “My job pays around 120k, so most of my gambling money comes from other avenues,” Brian said. For example: money laundering, which he handles for a few bookies he used to place bets with back in the day.

Legal sports betting can be traced to May 2018, when the Supreme Court overturned a law banning it. But the marketplace of online bettors and sportsbooks (people or companies that accept bets from individual bettors) didn’t really take off until the next month, when Delaware became the first state to legalize it. (Governor John Carney kicked things off with a $10 bet on the Phillies, who went on to beat the Cubs that night.) Less than two weeks later, New Jersey followed suit. Less than two months after that, Mississippi joined the fray. Soon after, West Virginia. 

Today, sports betting is legal in 33 states and Washington D.C., and will soon be legal in four more. Six additional states are debating legislation that would make it legal. An array of betting apps has sprouted to meet the new demand: DraftKings, WynnBET, BetRivers, FanDuel, and Caesars, among others. 

Professional sports leagues, which were once dead set against sports betting, have come around to it—eager to cash in on advertising revenue and betting partnerships. The NFL is, by far, the most popular sport for mobile gambling in the United States, followed by the NBA and MLB. College football is fourth. (Despite all this, or because of it, the NFL is very sensitive to the appearance of its games being rigged—hence the recent suspension of the five NFL players for betting.)

Brian Hatch, a recovering gambling addict who’s now an addiction counselor in Hartford, Connecticut, compared the rise of sports betting to the opioid crisis.

Referring to the family behind Purdue Pharma, Hatch told me: “This industry is profiting off of people with an addiction the same way the Sackler family profited off of opioids. Opioids were pushed by the drug companies and doctors relentlessly. Gambling is pushed by the industry and state governments.” 

To make sure would-be gamblers know it’s now easier than ever to win (or lose) heaps of cash, gambling app ads have flooded the cable airwaves, becoming more ubiquitous than insurance commercials. “I haven’t seen an online sports betting ad in almost 7 minutes,” Conan O’Brien tweeted last year. “Am I dead?”

Dave Goldsmith, a solar technician from Arizona who’s lost thousands in online bets, told me: “These apps are incredibly clever in drawing you in. I’ll be scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, and an ad will pop up, offering promotions or free spins. They tease you. It’s fun—at least, when you win.”

Elected officials across the country who have welcomed legal sports gambling into their states prefer not to talk about the money the bettors are losing and instead focus on the revenue flowing into state coffers. 

In New Jersey, where bettors have wagered nearly $35 billion since June 2018, the state has reeled in $309 million in revenue. In Pennsylvania, bettors have wagered $19.6 billion, generating more than $380 million in revenue. In Kansas, where sports betting became legal a little over six months ago, bettors have already bet $1.1 billion, and the state has collected almost $2.7 million.

“I just could not sit and watch other states take our money,” New York State Senator Joseph Addabbo, who chairs the Senate Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wagering, told me. “That bothered me. New York should be on the forefront. And we could use the revenue.”

Ninety-five percent of the online sports betting money flowing into New York State—in 2022, that was $909 million—goes to education, Addabbo said, although he couldn’t specify how or where the money is spent.

Addabbo would like to see online casinos in New York—the bill he’s been pushing to make that happen is stalled, for now—and he wants bettors to be able to bet on things like Coach of the Year or Most Valuable Player. 

“I’ve had colleagues come up to me with concerns about gambling,” Addabbo said, “and then I tell them about the $900 million in revenue for education, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is great!’ ”

Far from exacerbating New Yorkers’ gambling addiction, Addabbo said, legalization makes it easier for the state to identify who has a problem. “They were doing it in the shadows, and we couldn’t help them,” he said. Now, he added, “We can make sure they get the resources they need.”

Brian was unconvinced. “Even if it were true that they’re able to identify addicts easier—which I don’t really believe—the ease of gambling still means there are more addicts being created every day,” he said.

That’s the crux of the problem, Timothy Fong, a psychiatrist and codirector of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program, told me.

“If you bring a hundred new customers to a bar, how many of them will develop a problem with alcohol abuse?” Fong said. “It’s the same with sports gambling. When you introduce a hundred new customers every day to a mobile sports betting app, it may not be a problem immediately. But a year from now, or ten years from now, how many of them will be gambling with money they can’t afford to lose?”

The numbers buttress Fong’s concerns: for decades, the proportion of Americans diagnosed with “pathological gambling” has held steady at less than 1 percent, according to the International Center for Responsible Gaming—with 7 million Americans believed to be suffering from a gambling addiction at an annual “social cost” of $7 billion. But there are signs those numbers will soon go up: from 2021 to 2022, there was a 45 percent increase in the number of calls, texts, and messages to the National Problem Gambling Helpline. In New Jersey alone, the state’s Council on Compulsive Gambling’s help hotline has seen a 200 percent jump over the past four years.

Nor is the fallout limited to the gamblers. “It has a ripple effect,” explained Jeffrey Derevensky, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, who specializes in high-risk behaviors. “Among those one percent, they’re negatively impacting five to seven other people. It affects partners and children and families and employers.”

Dave Goldsmith, who used to gamble away an entire month’s salary in a single night, said his wife had left him. He added that he’s now living in his parents’ house. “I don’t see my son every day, like before,” he said.

Sharon, 32, in Denver, told me that her marriage is on the brink of collapse and that the family, including two small kids, is on the verge of becoming homeless—all because her husband can’t quit sports betting. 

“It goes in spurts,” she told me. “He’ll go for two weeks on a gambling binge, lose $15,000, and then stop because he feels guilty. He’ll build his money back up, and then the process starts all over again. He has slowly depleted literally everything we have. He always chooses to do it at the worst possible times, like after the birth of our son or Christmas or most recently, after I got in a horrible car wreck and couldn’t work.” She added: “I honestly don’t know what to do. I can’t stop him—he gets so angry and defensive when I bring it up.”

Gregg, 24, a physical therapist from Chicago who has struggled with drug and gambling addictions, said there was something especially insidious about gambling: “At least with drugs, you’re guaranteed a high. With gambling, you never know what’s coming.”

Derevensky predicted that we’re on the cusp of many Sharon- and Gregg-like stories mushrooming across the country, noting that a gambling disorder can take as long as five to seven years to develop. Similarly, it took many years for the public to tune in to the brewing opioid crisis: the first wave of opioid-related deaths started in the 1990s, but the rate at which doctors prescribed opioids did not start to decline until 2012—after tens of thousands of lives had been lost. “We have turned the nozzle on with no way to slow the flow or reduce the harm without the federal government acting,” Brian Hatch, the gambling addiction counselor, said. “The industry is pushing gambling so much without any mention of it being addictive.”

Making matters worse, Fong said, is that gambling addicts, unlike alcoholics and drug addicts, can solve the problems created by their gambling—by doing more of it. “I had a patient a few months ago who was a hundred grand in debt,” he said. “But then she made another bet and ended up winning $85,000. That’s part of why people don’t seek treatment. They feel like they’re just one more bet away from fixing everything.” 

Hatch agreed. “You get trapped in a cycle,” he said, “and people believe the only way out is a big win, which will never come.”

For now, the federal government spends no money on gambling addiction programs, and state gaming commissions or lotteries regulate gambling unevenly, at best. 

For example, gambling addicts have the option of adding their names to a self-exclusion list overseen by the state gaming commission or lottery. Sports gambling apps are barred from sending so-called self-excluded gamblers direct mail or allowing them to place bets. Failure to comply often leads to fines, which tend to be in the four- or five-digit range. DraftKings, for example, was fined $10,000 in 2021 by the state of New Jersey for sending “promotional materials” to 11 self-excluded gamblers.

“When you’re talking about companies with $8 billion valuations, I’m not sure that fining them a few thousand dollars will have much of a deterrent effect,” said John Holden, a sports management professor at Oklahoma State University, referring to DraftKings. He added: “I would not want to speak to the mindset of the companies, other than to say I do not think they are intentional acts.”

All that may be because a growing majority of Americans say gambling isn’t a problem. According to a Washington Post–University of Maryland poll conducted last May, 66 percent approve of legalized betting on professional sports—up from 55 percent in 2017, and 41 percent in 1993. While the public tends to see other addictions as chemical—in no small part, presumably, because those addictions involve putting things in your body—gambling is considered a “moral weakness,” Derevensky said. 

Fong pointed out that, when you die from an opiate overdose, everyone agrees the cause of death is opiates. Not so with so-called problem gamblers—up to 30 percent of whom have attempted suicide, according to one study. “You jump off a building because you’re miserable and depressed and you’re bankrupt—the cause of death is listed as blunt force trauma to the head,” he said. “It’s not listed as ‘gambling overdose.’ ”

For now, there is not much consensus about how best to combat problem gambling. There’s psychotherapy. There’s talk about the antidepressant escitalopram helping (although the Food and Drug Administration has yet to sign off). And there are hundreds of Gamblers Anonymous meetings taking place across the country in any given week, but it’s unclear whether those meetings, modeled after the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, do a great deal of good. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that Gamblers Anonymous data was “inconsistent.”

As for Brian, he’s decided against any self-help program. Instead, he’s mostly stopped watching sports with friends. When he does, he has someone confiscate his phone. He’s also avoiding YouTube, where the gambling ads are ubiquitous.

When we spoke recently, he told me he’d gambled once but has otherwise managed to “stay clean.” He considers himself, for now, “gambling sober.”

He added: “I’m trying to keep that permanent, but you never know.”

He seemed to have a hard time making sense of how he had lost control of everything way back when. He sounded almost bored with sports.

He recalled the first time he placed a bet. He was watching a basketball game with friends, and someone asked him if he thought the score would be over or under 115.5 at halftime. He didn’t know what that meant. (It means the combined scores of both teams divided by two.) “I did some quick math in my head,” Brian said, “picked over, and won $1,000 in about fifteen minutes.” 

He didn’t really care about the money, either. The excitement came from outsmarting the system—or, at least, believing he had. “I won $112,000 just last month, and there was nothing I wanted to buy,” he said. “It was just a number, like a video game.”

This is Eric Spitznagel’s first piece for The Free Press. Follow him on Twitter @ericspitznagel.

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