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Opponents of Casino Credit Laws Are Hurting, Not Helping, Gambling Addicts

Written By Steve Friess on June 6, 2023 - Last Updated on June 26, 2023
State of Play Casino Credit Laws

When Colorado Gov. Jared Polis last month vetoed a measure that would have allowed casinos to issue lines of credit to players, he wrote that he believed he was doing something to protect problem gamblers from themselves.

The bipartisan measure, Senate Bill 23-259, would have made licensed brick-and-mortar casinos in the Rocky Mountain State able to issue markers of at least $1,000 to players they deem credit-worthy. Borrowers would have had an astonishing 150 days to pay back the interest-free debt. Casinos want to provide this amenity to high rollers from out of town or state who would rather not haul wads of cash with them or pay big ATM fees.

Polis, a Democrat, wrote in his veto message:

“As currently written and passed, I worry that the bill would contribute to problematic gaming activities and hurt Coloradans, in particular those of limited means, by facilitating dubious instances of consent from persons who are suffering from addiction. … I am skeptical of the ability of a person with a gambling disorder to provide meaningful informed consent while engaged in gambling.”

There are a lot of problems with this logic — and the idea that the governor and the bill’s opponents believe this veto does anything to save addicts from their addictions would be laughable if it weren’t so wrong.

In fact, refusing to allow casino credit does the exact opposite.

Casinos in at least 18 states already extend credit

The first, most obvious problem here is that the Colorado gambling industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It was a little tricky to figure out exactly where markers are available around the United States because nobody seems to be tracking this particular tidbit.

But going state by state through the American Gaming Association’s 2023 online database, it appears that these states do: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and West Virginia. In addition, although the AGA indicates Arizona and Virginia prohibit it, I was able to find examples of casinos in both states offering applications for it. (UPDATE: Virginia amended its law to allow casino credit in 2022.)

The rules vary from state to state, usually extending interest-free markers with a 30-day expiration. In some places, such as Missouri, the law prohibits casinos to place liens on homes or retirement accounts. In others, casinos are empowered to debit bank accounts to claw back the debt. In Nevada, failing to pay a gambling debt can be a criminal offense.

The opposition to casino credit in Colorado wanted to shame that sneaky, greedy casino industry for looking at new ways to slip their sticky little fingers into everyone’s pockets.

And yet, just as the cure for illegal off-shore casinos are regulated, legitimate ones, the prospect of providing credit in this manner has great potential to actually help, not harm, addicts.

ATMs! Credit cards! Payday loan shops! Oh my!

Republican state Rep. Richard Holtorf voted against the Colorado bill before, a few hours later, voting for it. There was great drama around some of the vote switching that put the measure over the finish line, with the turncoats accused of being manipulated by gambling-industry lobbyists.

I prefer to believe that Holtorf realized why his own opposition statement — “If you’re having to borrow money to gamble that means you already spent the money you had to spend on gambling, and now you’re wanting to get in the game without any money” — was so stupid. By this logic, using a credit card for anything is evidence of some sort of lack of self-control. Putting that fancy cocktail on your Amex? Well, geez, you must be a drunk.

In fact, the lack of permissible credit at brick-and-mortar casinos already makes gambling unique in America. For what other pastime or product, with the possible exception of legal weed in many places, are customers simply not allowed to use the plastic? Banks do their credit checks when they agree to give you a card, but for gambling — and only gambling — that’s not enough.

Of course, that doesn’t prevent people from using credit cards to play. It just makes it much, much more expensive for them and much less transparent for anyone trying to detect and avert a problem gambler’s binge.

Blocking casino credit doesn’t stop addicts

In Polis’ Colorado right now, I can use my credit cards at ATMs in the casino to get cash advances that can cost me 30% or more in interest if unpaid. I can walk into a check-cashing store and give up a few percentage points. Or I can go to a payday loan shop and pay up to 36% because that’s the maximum the voters in Colorado approved in a 2018 ballot initiative. What’s more, the state’s sports betting apps all accept credit cards in various forms.

But borrow from the casino interest-free with a generous amount of time to repay? How predatory!

Like any creditor, the casino is taking a risk based on their assessment of a player’s finances and credit score. Some applications require an extensive litany of information including jobs, salaries and mortgage payments. No casino wants to spend money chasing customers for repayment only to write it off.

Blocking casino credit doesn’t stop addicts. If they’re credit-worthy to get a line from the casino, they also can get their gambling money elsewhere. Allowing them to borrow and play within the closed loop of a casino provides perhaps the purest opportunity for intervention. There are indicators of manic spending that can be spotted and addressed in ways that wouldn’t show up as clearly or as quickly in ATM transactions.

Oh, also, most people aren’t addicts. Most players know their limits. They just don’t want to get on planes or walk around downtown, say, with pockets stuffed with cash.

Casino credit sounds sleazy and that’s a shame. The fact is, it’s far safer and economical than the alternative.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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