Don’t Buy The Hype: Gambling Addiction Is Not Spreading Like Wildfire

Posted on June 4, 2017

[toc]If you skimmed the headlines coming out of New Jersey recently, you might have read we are in the midst of a problem gambling epidemic. Outlets are reporting problem gambling rates are tripling. Some are pointing the finger at online casinos too.

However, these are the kinds of conclusions you draw when you read the headlines, but not the fine print. A recent study by Rutgers University designed to investigate problem gambling had interesting results. While it did find higher numbers of problem gamblers than past study, it found many reasons not to draw dire conclusions too.

Methodology of gambling study very different from past research

The study is very up front in its findings that the methodology of the research is too different from previous studies to really compare them directly. The biggest difference is the Rutgers study incorporated online surveys in addition to telephone interviews.

Past studies, on the other hand, tended to solely gather data over the phone. Moreover, many prevalence studies of the past couple of decades rely solely on calls to land lines.

Ask yourself this: is the population of people in the United States who still use land lines indicative of the entire country’s population?

So, this most recent study reported incidents of gambling problems roughly three times higher than similar population studies. As the study noted, the spike in problem gambling numbers stemmed largely from the pool of online surveys. In other words, do not take the spike at face value. Even Rutgers stated plainly that these numbers are not equitable because the methods differed so much.

Rutgers even noted that phone-dependent studies tended to “grossly underestimate” prevalence. Worst case scenario, we just have not been aware of the problem gambling population which has existed all along.

Online surveys, not online gambling caused spike in problem gambling results

Do not see the word “online” and conclude Rutgers found online gambling led to increased problem gambling. The spike the study references came from how the data was collected.

The lead researcher for Rutgers, Lia Nower, clarified that point in the university’s press release.

“There has been a lot of panic or fear about online gambling. What we find is that it appeals to a younger demographic, but that in isolation, it doesn’t appear online is driving a real spike in problems.”

The study also shed light on just how many people in New Jersey played online. Only 5.3 percent gambled exclusively online, while another 19 percent played at both land-based and online casinos.

The group that gambled in both places was the group which reported the highest incidents of problem gambling. This is not too surprising, as the rate of problem gambling correlated with people who gambled on the highest number of formats. While online gambling is not directly to blame for the perceived problem gambling increase, the increased number of ways people can gamble does seem to influence the rate of people developing an addiction.

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Survey questions could explain the problem gambling response

Another methodology issue to consider with these result is the nature of the questions on the survey. The study identified problem gamblers using the set of questions from the PGSI survey. If you look at the questions, you will see many of them are a bit ambiguous.

You will also notice the questions do not translate as well for professional gamblers in advantage games like poker and sports betting. Unsurprisingly, the highest percentage of problem gamblers identified in the study came from poker. Forty-three percent of problem gamblers predominantly played poker.

Those familiar with poker pros probably know that the nature of the game requires a substantial amount of financial risk. Those risks are often tempered by staking arrangements or other financial deals which take the burden off the individual. The questions do not really include that level of nuance.

In other words, these questionnaires identify problem gambling using criteria that, while applicable to recreational slot machine gambling, does not really translate to professional gamblers.

There are plenty of interesting conclusions to draw from the study, the biggest of which seems to be we need to reconsider how we study problem gambling. This Rutgers effort discovered many new areas of interest in the important subject. What it did not discover is that suddenly problem gambling is running rampant across New Jersey.

Jessica Welman Avatar
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Jessica Welman

Jessica Welman has worked as a tournament reporter for the World Poker Tour, co-hosted a podcast for Poker Road, and served as the managing editor for WSOP.com. A graduate of Indiana University and USC, Welman is not only a writer but also a producer. She can be found on Twitter @jesswelman.

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