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Steve Friess: Problem Gambling Advocates Must Get Real About National Hotline Problems

Written By Steve Friess on August 24, 2023
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State of Play with Steve Friess

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.


I thought maybe I’d get an honest answer on the radio. Instead, the lady from Maryland gaslit our audience. So here I am to set the record straight.

A few weeks ago, I was invited on a live program called Midday on NPR’s Baltimore affiliate, WYPR, during an hour devoted to problem gambling to discuss some recent State of Play columns. In one, I took apart a shoddy study that claimed that the prevalence of gambling disorders in Maryland was double the national rate. In others, I called on the National Center for Problem Gambling (NCPG) to task to acknowledge and address major problems in the ability of the national hotline, 1-800-GAMBLER, to provide efficient, effective help to its callers.

I was supposed to be on the show by myself for about 15 minutes, but Mary Drexler, executive director for the Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, called in early in the hour asking to speak. The producers made space for by putting her on with me.

I thought that was great. I’ve been trying for a while to get someone like Drexler to answer my questions anyway.

Problem gambling groups resist criticism

In the gambling world, the NCPG and its affiliated state-level anti-problem gambling agencies and groups are sacred cows. Even in the most critical, hard-hitting media stories about the casino industry, these folks are always touted as the good guys doing their best with too little to stem a rising tide of addiction.

I agree they’re the good guys. They mean well. They want to save people from themselves. And, also, they shouldn’t be immune to criticism or never forced to explain their shortcomings. If something isn’t working, it’s an unconscionable waste of time and money. People go unhelped.

So, anyhow, I was on the radio with Mary Drexler. She’s on the NCPG board and a veteran of efforts to provide services and support to people struggling with gambling compulsions. But her remarks were strange and disingenuous.

I got to go first. The entire NPR show was built around results of a study conducted in 2020 that said 8.6% of Marylanders were either “probable pathological gamblers” or “problem gamblers.” The national average is 4 to 5 percent. The same study in 2017 in Maryland put the figure at 1.9 percent, or less than half the national average. Nothing had changed in Maryland’s casino world between 2017 and 2020. But doing an addiction study at the peak of COVID lockdowns, when everyone was stressed out and self-soothing meant the data was worthless.

The host, Tom Hall, let me say all of that, then asked Drexler for her thoughts. She opened promisingly — “I agree with Steve” – but then she said that they re-did the study in 2022 and will have results out possibly by the end of August.

To which I said, even though my mic was muted: “Wait, what?”

Why did Maryland just publish an old study?

Drexler’s answer sounds good until you realize what she’s saying. Her organization just one month ago released three-year-old data they knew was flawed and misleading when they knew a more recent study would be available within weeks.

Why bother releasing the 2020 data at all when you know you’ve got newer information coming so soon?

Only one answer makes sense: The 2022 data is much less dramatic, so they needed to exploit the 2020 data to make headlines, spark conversation, and perhaps spur more money for awareness and treatment.

Who, they must have figured, is going to question the veracity of a study that supports the view that gambling is super-addictive and demands more public resources?


Raising questions about the hotline

Then we moved on to the 1-800-GAMBLER discussion.

I explained how Marylanders who call in from Maryland speak to an operator in Louisiana who will take minutes shuffling around looking for Maryland-specific information. I know this because I’ve tried it. Sometimes the people who answer have to spend time looking up the name of a city I claim to be calling from. It doesn’t engender confidence.

More importantly, though, is the fact that someone in Maryland who calls 1-800-GAMBLER but has a cell phone from an area code from another state is likely to automatically be routed to that state. So even if I’m in Baltimore, if I call from a Michigan area code I will be automatically forwarded to the hotline run by the state of Michigan.

Here’s where Drexler’s comments get especially dicey. She claimed the Louisiana operators are well-trained and ready with Maryland-specific information even though I keep getting ones who are not.

And then she said this:

“When you call 1-800-GAMBLER and you’re calling from the state of Maryland, you’re gonna get us. You’re gonna get directly the resources you need from Maryland.”

It’s a baffling comment. It is not true. Maryland does not run a hotline of its own. She had just admitted that. Then she says we’re going to get “directly the resources you need from Maryland.” At best, the Louisiana folks will, under the right circumstances, transfer the call to someone in Maryland.

A very Clintonian answer to whether 1-800-GAMBLER ‘works’

After Drexler’s comment, she and I were ushered off the air. Lia Nower, the director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University came on next. She had lots of really valuable information about how gambling addiction is and should be diagnosed, and she agreed with me that the Maryland study’s data is misleading. “I’m skeptical about the numbers that they’re citing,” she said.

But when Hall asked her whether 1-800-GAMBLER works, Nower offered this mealy-mouthed response:

“That depends on what you mean by work. For example, hotlines and billboards, I don’t believe keep anyone from gambling or moving further down the spectrum toward disorder. However, when people are at a point where they really want help, … they’re essential. I do think they do good. And depending on who’s manning the hotline, they can triage people to the resources that they most need.”

So there we are. It depends on the definition of “work.”

Until folks like Drexler and Nower are more open about the flaws in the system, it’ll never get fixed. I mean, unless they just change the definition of “fixed.”

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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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