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March Madness is well underway, and with it a deluge of gambling that propels the tournament. It's estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will place bets on this year's NCAA basketball tournament, which creates a hazardous environment for anyone susceptible to problem gambling.
Though most Americans can gamble for enjoyment without issue, the issue of gambling addiction is one that's gone woefully unaddressed by state and federal addiction programs. It is a fact that gambling addiction produces the highest rate of suicide among addictions, making it a very real public health issue.
As Minnesota lawmakers consider passing a bill that would legalize sports betting, it's more imperative than ever that the legislation includes increases in treatment, prevention and research funding to match the proposed expansion of gambling rights. It is the mission of the Minnesota Alliance on Problem Gambling (MNAPG) to raise awareness of gambling addiction and advocate for more safeguards around gambling to ensure consumers are protected and able to access resources for treatment and prevention.
It's no coincidence that March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. All over the country, organizations like ours make special efforts throughout the month to get the word out that problem gambling is a legitimate addiction defined in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Though MNAPG remains neutral on legalization, we stand for the prioritization of consumer protection over revenue. We've worked alongside several lawmakers involved in crafting the proposed legislation, which includes a lot of promising language around the following:
Funding: Directing 40% of sports betting tax revenue toward problem gambling programs.
Age restrictions: The promise to raise the legal betting age to 21 will help to prevent high school students from accessing regulated gambling sites on their phones.
Education: Prevention messaging to students, and especially young athletes, will provide a foundational understanding of the harms that can occur with gambling and where one can turn for help. Gambling prevention education is still absent from middle school and high school curricula.
Meanwhile, there are key pieces missing from the current legislation that would be critical to include. They include:
Rule making: MNAPG would prefer to see more specific language built into the bill and will actively participate in the rule-making process to include specific practices requiring operators to build responsible gaming programs. These programs should include comprehensive employee training, access to self-exclusion programs, ability to set limits on time and money spent on betting, and specific requirements for the inclusion of help/prevention messages in external marketing.
Research: There are currently no federal dollars to fund gambling disorder research. Each state must decide whether to support such efforts. MNAPG believes there should be funding for regularly scheduled studies to monitor the impacts of gambling on players and support for using the data to develop evidence-based mitigation efforts. We don't seek individual data, but would make aggregate data on players' behaviors and experiences available to universities and nonprofit research entities. Without access to such data, the hands of those who work in the prevention and treatment fields are tied.
No one chooses to become addicted to anything — it's never due to a moral failing or a lack of willpower. Gambling addiction is just as serious as an alcohol or drug addiction and deserves to be treated equitably, with an appropriate level of funding for treatment, prevention, research and training.
Susan Sheridan Tucker is the executive director of the Minnesota Alliance on Problem Gambling.