State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.
Among the 16 suggestions to combat problem gambling put out recently by the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS), No. 10 is the easiest, the most logical and potentially the most effective. It says the group:
“Supports the use of one accredited national problem gambling helpline number within all jurisdictions.”
It’s also not going to happen any time soon — and probably never unless Congress makes it so, which members are unlikely to do.
The big idea here: More help would get to more folks who need it if the nation had a single, easily remembered phone number for gamblers in crisis or the people worried about them.
Makes great sense, right? Yet efforts to do so have not gone well. The reasons for that show little sign of abating any time soon.
About a year ago, the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) licensed 1-800-GAMBLER from the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey with the aim of using it as a national number. The New Jersey organization had been using that number for decades. It is so logical and memorable, the NCPG leaders said, that taking it national could cut through the confusing clutter of local hotlines.
In particular, gambling ads that appear on national broadcasts feature multiple helpline numbers in various, mostly unreadable, font sizes.
This is a problem that originated with the state legislatures, though. In many cases, the laws or rules set forth by regulatory agencies dictate what hotline number must be used and how it must appear. New York is a particularly important example; the Empire State’s law says its own helpline number — 877-8-HOPENY — must appear throughout an ad “at least 2% of the height or width, whichever is greater, of the image on the screen” or at the end of the ad at 8% of the image’s height or width.
In many cases, New York’s number overwhelms the others, including 1-800-GAMBLER, such as in this FanDuel ad from this year’s Super Bowl.
In other cases, like this April 2023 ad from BetMGM, the solution was to bump up 1-800-GAMBLER to the size of New York’s number and then to list the national, New York and Massachusetts numbers like so:
For 1-800-GAMBLER to become a true national hotline, every state would have to be persuaded to use it and agree to a unified approach to how it appears in advertising. But even states that have embraced it on the national level, such as Ohio, still use their local hotline number on in-state advertising as well as on every lottery ticket they sell.
Many states have their own clever, memorable hotline “numbers.” Florida has 1-800-ADMIT-IT. Iowa has 800-BETS-OFF and Missouri has 888-BETS-OFF, which I’m sure is causing some confusion. Rhode Island has 1-877-9-GAMBLE. The aforementioned one from New York, 1-877-8-HOPENY, is neither memorable nor clever; I’d love to have been in the room when some lunkhead said, “Yeah, let’s put millions of dollars behind promoting this.”
The leaders of the problem gambling organizations in Florida and Connecticut, in particular, simply refuse to submit. And the National Council can’t do a thing about it because each of these organizations are separate, self-governing entities.
1-800-GAMBLER needs help
It would also help, though, if 1-800-GAMBLER was effective at fielding calls and texts and providing quick, relevant, local information to callers.
I’ve been testing the service for more than a year, and it never gets much better.
I called this afternoon. A nice Southern lady came on the line. That means I was routed to a call center in Louisiana. My phone’s area code is 702, so I asked if the woman was in Nevada. She said no. I asked if there was a Nevada number I could call. She asked me to hold on while she looked for one. More than a minute later, she told me to write down a number she was about to provide.
There are so many things wrong with this. Let’s count them:
- Why didn’t 1-800-GAMBLER automatically forward me to the Nevada number when my call was coming in?
- In lieu of that, why doesn’t 1-800-GAMBLER offer an immediate prompt asking me what state I’m in so it can forward me to the hotline in that state?
- Why didn’t the hotline woman forward my call herself?
There’s some common sense missing from this effort. People in crisis are often reluctant to seek it and nervous when they do. The operators who answer have a painfully brief window to engage the caller, find out what’s going on, encourage them to get help and provide them with direction on how to do so.
They should have every state’s local contact information at their fingertips. They should try harder to keep people on the line. They should be able to route the call to a state hotline or an appropriately located treatment center instantly. Heck, they should at least ask for a callback number in the event of a disconnection.
They do none of that. If they’re going to make it more than a one-step process to get to someone who knows something useful, they will lose most opportunities to help people.
How is it nobody knows this?
How about some simple technological upgrades?
Here’s the other thing: My area code is 702 but I live in Michigan. In fact, millions of Americans don’t live in the states of their area codes. If the hotline is solely moving calls around based on the area code, they’re failing.
I want to believe the people advocating for help for gambling addicts, both in and outside the casino industry, are sincere. But the National Council last year received a $6 million gift from the NFL that Executive Director Keith Whyte told PlayUSA last year would go to modernize and update the entire gambler helpline industry. That included unifying behind a single helpline number for advertising that appears on national NFL broadcasts as well as “raising standards, improving training and certification and better collection data,” Whyte says.
A year later, why haven’t there been simple technological upgrades to function the way every local credit union and hardware store’s phone system works? “Press 1 if you’re in the state of your area code, press 2 if not” is too difficult? Or “State the name of the state you’re calling from”?
If the national number worked well — if it sent people to knowledgeable, local resources in an expeditious way — it might just naturally usurp the rest of them. But what logic would entice New York, Florida or Connecticut to want to send people to a number that may send them to a Louisiana call center where the operator probably has never even heard of their cities or towns?
Don’t bet on a national solution
Only Congress can solve this — but don’t hold your breath. Beyond the fact that Washington, D.C., is too dysfunctional to be counted on to do anything at all, there’s also no appetite for legislating anything related to gambling. Even responsible gambling.
Also, state legislatures and governors don’t much enjoy it when the federal government tries to tell the states to conform to a national standard, however well-meaning and logical. And each state with a hotline also has a fund dedicated to problem gambling that could vanish if a national number or system took over. There are a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on providing redundant services.
These are the headwinds. Can they be overcome? Anything is possible. But as gamblers, we are guided by probabilities. I wouldn’t bet on it.
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