After the Kentucky Senate passed legislation March 30 making sports betting legal, the Bluegrass State became the first state to legalize the activity in 2023 and the 37th state in general.
Even more interesting is that Kentucky will also be one of six US legal jurisdictions that allow online sports betting for players at a minimum age of 18. Others that allow 18+ players to place online sports bets are:
- New Hampshire
- Washington DC
- Rhode Island
With Kentucky’s retail launch this week and online sports betting by the end of the month, and given it has the biggest population among these states (nearly 4.4 million) and a long horse racing history, it brings a lot of concern regarding the age limitation, as most other legal gambling states allow gambling to 21+ players.
A gambling regulator in Ohio has voiced his displeasure that Kentucky is allowing sports betting to 18-year-olds. Ohio requires you to be at least 21 to place sports wagers.
PlayUSA recently talked to Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), to discuss the challenges of the Kentucky sports betting rollout.
Kentucky is the National Council on Problem Gambling’s biggest concern
As Kentucky prepares to launch sports betting as early as this month, Gov. Andy Beshar signed emergency regulations to administer the Kentucky Problem Gambling Assistance account. That way, the state will provide resources to address problem gambling.
In other words, a portion of the gaming revenue in the state will be used to help those who struggle with gambling addictions. In particular, a measure will require 2.5% of the tax dollars from sports betting to fund problem gambling support efforts.
And even though Kentucky will have some public funding in place, Whyte said it is still not going to be enough:
“It’s going to take years, at a minimum, to build a comprehensive problem gambling system. And it may take even longer than that for people with gambling problems in Kentucky to trust this system because they’ve been told for their entire lives that there’s no help available. And even if you create this system, will they come to it and trust it? That does not happen overnight.”
No state has as deep a connection with betting on horses as Kentucky does. The Kentucky Derby has been the state’s most respectable horse racing event, occurring once a year at Churchill Downs since 1875.
For that reason, Kentucky is one of the NCPG’s biggest concerns, as legal betting could and probably will attract young players.
States allowing 18+ to gamble have the least amount of problem gambling aid
So far, the NCPG does not see more incidence of people 18-20 seeking treatment in states where online gambling is regulated versus in states where it is not legal. The NCPG executive director says there are a few reasons behind that.
Whyte says that is mainly because most US gambling jurisdictions do a poor job of studying and researching. Likewise, there’s a very low rate of treatment seeking. As is usually the case – the younger people are, the less likely they are to seek help and support.
“They think they’re invulnerable and often do not recognize that what they have is a serious disorder versus that behavior.”
Unfortunately, there are very few services for people within this age range. With all gambling addiction, he said there’s usually an “enormous amount of shame and stigma.” On top of that, the US states don’t have good statistics yet.
As Whyte emphasized, among the states and jurisdictions that allow sports betting at age 18, Kentucky and Washington DC are the ones that have the least amount of problem gambling programs.
“I think there’s probably a correlation between states and the jurisdictions that allow you to bet on sports at a young age and jurisdictions that also are failing or doing very poorly in terms of preventing training.”
While Kentucky has recently signed emergency regulations to provide resources to address problem gambling, the District of Columbia recently abolished its funding for problem gambling. And that is the jurisdiction with the highest volume of calls, chats and text messages from people seeking assistance.
Main problem? No consistent minimum age to gamble in the US
The NCPG has been concerned for a long time that there’s no consistent minimum age to gamble in the US.
At the federal level, gambling is generally considered a legal activity in the US, allowing each state to set its own rules regarding different forms of gambling.
US lotteries generally allow 18-year-old players to gamble, with a few state exceptions like Arizona (21), Arkansas (21), Louisiana (21) and Nebraska (19). Likewise, with a few exceptions, horse racing facilities request players to be 18.
The minimum gambling age for land-based casinos across the US, however, varies from 18 to 21.
Legal online casino states, on the other hand, have all set the same boundary for players to be at least 21 years old to create an online account.
Yet there is no consistency on a national level. For example, Kentucky allows gambling at 18 while bordering six states — Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia — offer legal betting for players who are 21.
As Whyte explained:
“I’ll say it is a lot like in the alcohol field. It’s going to take national-level pressure to get everybody to agree on a consistent minimum age. And we don’t have the same tools that the federal government and national policymakers had when they were able to force states to raise the drinking age to 21 by threatening to withhold highway funds.”
Whyte also stressed that the federal government has a different relationship with gambling and has very little direct involvement.
It is also common to see different regulations within the same state as the US doesn’t have a consistent consumer. Therefore, there are no consistent, responsible gambling protections across states or industry verticals.
Why are people in the 18-20 age group most vulnerable?
It’s common knowledge that the earlier someone starts gambling, the more likely they are to have a gambling problem. Whyte said.
“Our brain doesn’t mature rates of addiction rates of participation in risky behaviors and rates of addiction don’t really go down significantly until the 24 to 25 year, age or so. So, from a neuroscience standpoint, that debate should not be to be between 18 and 21. It should be between 21 and 25.”
Although the NCPG has yet to take a position on the minimum age, Whyte said they acknowledge that the gap between 18 and 21 involves a lot more risk.
“Players within the 18-20 range have the highest rates of gambling participation, the lowest rates in our survey of gambling literacy. They don’t think about budgeting as much. They have all sorts of myths that distorted thinking around their odds of winning.”
Newly legal sports betting states, like Ohio and Massachusetts, have acknowledged this incidence and established some of the strictest advertising and marketing standards, attempting to protect players under 21 from being exposed to gambling. Ohio is even considering banning celebrities from advertising legal sportsbooks.
What will it take to get that consistency, and who has to be involved?
Whyte said the NCPG now has a unique opportunity and even an obligation to try and work with various industry leaders, including:
- State regulators
With legal online sports betting quickly spreading to 37 US jurisdictions and online casinos allowed in six states, these issues have been neglected. Whyte said now would be the excellent time to get to better family policy, which would include a consistent set of responsible gambling protections and provisions:
“I think we’re uniquely positioned to do so and as the advocate to help people with gambling problems. I think we have an obligation. We can’t point the finger and say it’s someone else’s job.
We’ve got to be the ones driving, not because we have power – we’re the ones with the least power, but because we’ve got players’ interests and problems on our minds, and that’s always more important than the power. It’s the people protecting the people.”
The American Gaming Association (AGA) has been familiar with the matter. Earlier this year, AGA updated its marketing code to focus on more precise wording and boundaries to prohibit “risk-free” promotions and enhance college-aged protections.
One of the suggestions was to change “all references in the Code” to the “legal age of wagering” to 21+.
Encouraging operators to raise the minimum gambling age to 21+ voluntarily
The NCPG has been calling for decades for states and betting companies to voluntarily harmonize their responsible gaming regulations so that players and consumers have the same protections and expectations, whether gambling in New Jersey or New Mexico.
“We haven’t formally done that yet. We were greatly encouraged by Caesars discussion about doing that and it’s certainly something I think we would encourage the other operators to adopt.”
Although Kentucky imposed the minimum gambling age for online sportsbooks to be 18, Caesars said it is prepared to raise that restriction to 21.
Whyte believes that if operators are willing to raise the minimum gambling age to 21+ voluntarily, it could be a good starting point:
“If they adopt it in Kentucky, they may do it in these other jurisdictions, too. “