Study provides baseline for problem gambling as state expands gaming


By Gintautas Dumcius


BOSTON — A first-of-its-kind survey of Bay State gambling attitudes and issues showed 1.7 percent of Massachusetts residents — roughly 88,000 people — are struggling with problem gambling.

But the chief researcher behind the survey, Rachel Volberg, said the number of people in the survey who said they have sought treatment or another form of help is “extremely small.”

“We need to figure out how to close that gap,” said Volberg, the principal investigator of the study and an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences.

In Connecticut and Kentucky, the problem gambling rate is 1.1 percent, and in New York it’s at 1.2 percent. In Oregon and Washington, the rate is 2.1 percent.

The study of 9,578 Massachusetts residents, the largest survey in the U.S., collected data from September 2013 to May 2014. The study defined gambling as “lottery games, bingo, betting against a friend on a game of skill or chance, and betting on horse racing or sports.”

“This is to watch, over the long haul, what happens when you introduce casinos,” Gaming Commission chair Stephen Crosby said. “That’s what this is about.”

Massachusetts will hit a milestone on June 24 when a slots parlor, operating under the name Plainridge Park Casino, opens in Plainville. Resort casinos are scheduled to be built in Everett and Springfield over the next few years, and the commission is reviewing proposals for a casino in southeastern Massachusetts.

Among Bay State residents who go to a casino to gamble, the majority said they go to Connecticut. A quarter of the Massachusetts population doesn’t gamble, the survey said.

Between 353,400 and 426,200 Massachusetts adults are estimated to be “at-risk gamblers,” according to the study.

“Deeper analyses will allow us to examine factors that may contribute to or cause problem gambling, relationships between gambling attitudes and gambling participation, and factors associated with particular types of gambling,” the survey’s executive summary said. “We also plan deeper analyses of data that were not highlighted in this summary because of the small numbers of respondents who reported certain behaviors.”

As an example, the survey noted that respondents in military service after Sept. 11, 2011 reported a “particularly high rate” of problem gambling.

Volberg outlined the findings at a Thursday meeting of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, a five-person panel tasked with implementing the 2011 law that authorized up to three casinos and a slots parlor to open in the state.

The commission funded the study, which was mandated by the 2011 law.

Gambling regulators plan to use the data to develop strategies that could curb problem gambling.

“We just want to know what the facts are,” Crosby said. “I mean, problem gambling is a problem, I’m concerned about problem gambling just like I’m concerned about all addictions. And I’m particularly concerned about what happens to problem gambling when the casinos, for which the commission is responsible for, take over.”

Regulators will also be using the data to monitor the effect of expanded gambling on the Lottery, which had revenues totaling $5 billion in fiscal year 2014.

According to the study, roughly six in 10 residents say they play the Lottery, which was first instituted in 1972.

The study said about 59 percent view the state’s gambling expansion as “neutral, beneficial or very beneficial,” and 41 percent believe it to be “somewhat or very harmful,” similar to the results of the unsuccessful 2014 referendum to repeal the 2011 expanded gambling law.

But, the survey added, “[p]eople viewed the impact of having a new casino or slot parlor in their own community somewhat more negatively than they perceived the general impact for Massachusetts; with 45.8% believing it would be harmful compared to 28.0% who believe it would be beneficial.”

The UMass survey also showed men are three times more likely than women to have a gambling problem; blacks are four times more likely to have a problem than whites.

More information on the study can be found here: