Online gambling allows for easy access and anonymity, health officials warn.
New online sports betting apps are raising concerns about the effects and morality of legal gambling. Most states have strict regulations on in-person gambling and brick-and-mortar casinos. One such state is Kansas, which only allowed gambling through the lottery and in-person at casinos until very recently, when it legalized sports betting. With the rollout of online sports gambling, every adult Kansan can now bet on any event in the world, 24/7. Some researchers and Kansas officials believe the state has a moral responsibility to protect people from apps which heighten the risk of gambling addiction.
Gambling addiction can be extremely harmful to people’s lives. The Mayo Clinic says this addiction can “stimulate the brain’s reward system much like drugs or alcohol.” People who excessively bet can sometimes lose thousands of dollars, leading to devastating effects including poor work performance, theft, fraud, imprisonment, relationship problems, and even suicide.
Timothy Fong, a UCLA psychiatrist studying gambling addiction at UCLA, pointed out the particular dangers of online gambling as compared to other types of gambling, stating, “The access, availability, anonymity, and the fact that you can do this all the time and constantly get new opportunities makes it potentially addictive.” Fong also remarked how the highly impersonal nature of online betting, as compared to traditional casinos, can reduce the perception of risk and easily let the addict hide the behavior from friends and family.
Some Kansas officials are also concerned about the state’s moral responsibility to its citizens. Kansas Republican state Rep. Paul Waggoner believes the state should send more money on funding support systems for combating addiction. He’s also worried the state hasn’t done enough research on the risk potential for Kansans. Stephenie Roberts, chair of the Kansas Problem Gambling Task Force, pointed out that the state has not spent as much money raising awareness for gambling addictions as it has on other public health issues, such as opioid abuse or wearing seatbelts.
Former House Speaker Ron Ryckman claims that Kansas did everything right when making the decision to legalize sports betting. “We took best practices from other states,” Ryckman said, “and made sure we had a robust, responsible gaming framework that increased funding for gambling addiction well beyond pre-existing levels.” However, some people see a different narrative. Kansas’ neighbor Missouri tried to legalize sports betting but the bill was blocked by Republican Denny Hoskins. Hoskins expressed many of the same concerns as Waggoner, Fong, and Roberts; most importantly a lack of funding for gambling addiction support systems. Martin Green of Gambling.com speculated that the fear of Missouri legalization actually drove Kansas to legalize it first to avoid economic loss of Kansans traveling to Missouri to place their bets there. Rather than prioritizing public health, as Ryckman said, it seems Kansas may have legalized sports betting hastily for economic reasons.
Being so new, the full positive and negative effects of legal sports gambling in the U.S. have not been fully realized. Psychologists, gamblers, legislators, and regular Americans will have to watch the cards fall where they may.