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Steve Friess: Maryland Problem Gambling Study Is Flawed, But Activists, Media Don’t Care

Written By Steve Friess on July 28, 2023 - Last Updated on July 31, 2023
Steve Friess State of Play Flawed Maryland Gambling Study (1)

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.


 

The news out of Annapolis last week was too bad to be true.

A study made public by the Maryland General Assembly found that nearly 9% of Old Line State residents have a gambling problem, nearly double the commonly cited rate nationally of 5%. What’s more, the state’s problem gambling hotline isn’t getting the number of calls you’d expect given such an epidemic.

Here’s how WTOP, a top-rated news radio station, reported it:

“There may be hundreds of thousands of Marylanders with a gambling problem, while just a few thousand have sought help from the state center that provides resources to those who need them.”

And here’s the Daily Record, a statewide business and legal newspaper:

Maryland is falling short of expectations and national standards in helping people suffering from a gambling problem, a legislative report shows.”

The report’s findings led to a predictable bit of sturm und drang from legislators, too. Sen. Clarence Lam, chair of the legislature’s joint Audit and Evaluation Committee, which requested the report be conducted, told reporters: 

“We didn’t know how deep the problem was. We have a long way to go to address this problem.

Now, the problem might actually be pretty bad. It even might be worse than other parts of the country. And there’s little doubt that all problem gambling apparati can do more to provide help and advice to folks who need it.

But this study is, to be technical about it, Chesapeake Bay Crapola. And you know that because there are so many caveats in it that even its authors clearly know they’re working with problematic data.

Didn’t stop them from putting this junk science into the ether, though.

Study conducted during the pandemic

The first thing you should know about this study is when it was conducted: June to August 2020. That is, the height of the pandemic, back when we were all hunkering down in our homes and afraid of touching gas pumps and the mail. When life was terrifying and depressing and often lonely. When we had no idea if the world would ever return to normal.

So in that context, J. Kathleen Tracy and Nicholas Schlurterman of the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling at the University of Maryland School of Medicine went ahead anyway with a survey of 6,000 adults. They had state funding, after all, and there’s only so much “Ted Lasso” and “Tiger King” you can watch before you need to get back to work.

But it’s this bit that is especially fascinating: 

Respondents were classified as gamblers if they had ever participated in any of the 11 forms of gambling.

Ever? EVER. EVER!

This is where we start, with a universe of people who have, in their entire lives, ever played mah jongg for pennies, bought a lottery ticket or tossed some change into a slot machine. That, it turns out, is 92% of people in Maryland.

The researchers applied the NORC DSM-IV Screen for Gambling Problems to the responses and determined that 5.5% were “probable pathological gamblers” and 3.1% were “problem gamblers.” That’s where they get 8.6%.

How did the numbers in Maryland double?

Those numbers were a wild swing up from the results of the same study in Maryland conducted in 2010 and 2017. In 2010, 1.5% were probable pathological gamblers and 1.9% were “problem gamblers,” for a 3.4% total. In 2017, the data came in at 1.2% as “probable pathological gamblers” and 0.7% as “problem gamblers,” for a mere 1.9% total.

Remember, the typical national share of problem gamblers is between 4 and 5%. So in 2010 and 2017, Maryland was significantly below that average and in 2020, suddenly, it’s doubling it?

And nobody stops to say, “Huh?”

No, no. They just point to the broader availability of gambling and say, “Of course it’s gone wild!”

Except that Maryland hasn’t had a major brick-and-mortar casino opening since December 2016 which, according to the Gregorian calendar, is before 2017. And online gambling — solely in the form of sports betting — didn’t launch in the state until eight months ago.

Scoring in the survey leaves a lot to be desired

The questions in the survey seem reasonable, but it’s hard to imagine how most people don’t end up in the addicted category given the way it is scored. A score of five lands you in the “probable pathological gambler” category and a three or four makes you a “problem gambler.”

Many of the questions — have you ever had trouble stopping yourself from gambling, do you think about it constantly, have you ever broken the law to get money to gamble, are you betting more and more just to feel excitement doing so — do comport with common sense as it pertains to any form of addiction.

But if you say yes to just three of these, you’re a “problem gambler” according to modern medicine:

  • Have you ever gambled to relieve uncomfortable feelings such as guilt, anxiety, helplessness, or depression?
  • Has there ever been a period when, if you lost money gambling one day, you would return another day to get even?
  • Have you ever lied to family members, friends or others about how much you gamble or how much money you lost on gambling?

Again, it was a pandemic. The world was ending. There wasn’t anything to do. Everyone was losing their jobs. In normal times, answering yes to these three questions wouldn’t be unusual for a lot of non-addicted people.

‘Extraordinary effect of the pandemic’

None of this nuance made its way into reporting or commentary from public officials. Only on page 98 of this 105-page report does this passage appear:

“The timing of survey implementation and the sampling frames resulted in a higher estimated problem gambling prevalence than observed during the past decade. While the precipitous increase is notable, we recommend confirmation given the shift in sampling methods and the extraordinary effect of the pandemic on the population.”

In other words: We should really do this again before we all jump to conclusions.

Gee, ya think?

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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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