Pennsylvanians gambling in record numbers, online games surge

Health

(WHTM) — Pennsylvanians are masking, distancing and gambling. In March, for the first time ever, more than $400 million was wagered in a single month.

The state hit the jackpot. Its cut was nearly $167 million. And if you’ve watched television, you know the popular play.

“We see more and more of the revenue that will come from online gambling,” said Doug Harbach, of the Pa. Gaming Control Board.

Nearly half of that $400 million-march was from internet gaming and it’s a good bet that percentage is only going to increase. But is that a good thing?

“Let’s face it, some people aren’t gonna be able to gamble responsibly,” said Josh Ercole, with the Council on Compulsive Gambling.

The council oversees the “1-800” helpline number. Two years ago, the calls were mostly from middle-aged casino-goers. Now, the callers are younger and online.

“We’ve seen those numbers skyrocket over the past 15 months,” Ercole said.

Makes sense. The pandemic shut casinos for months. Sent most of us home — isolated, anxious, bored and left to our own devices. Many of us jumped on our devices.

“All you need is a smartphone or a tablet. You don’t have to travel anywhere. It becomes so much more accessible to so many more people,” said Addiction Counselor Jody Bechtold.

Online gambling, especially sports wagering, is too accessible, Bechtold said. She co-authored the Gambling Disorder Treatment Handbook and sees a steady stream of 20-something males seeking help.

“You could be 26 years old, have a severe problem and yet you’ve never been inside a brick and mortar casino. Everything’s been online for you,” Bechtold said.

Sports betting used to mean betting on a team and spending three hours watching the game to see if you won. Now, online, you can bet on every pitch and every batter. It’s a hit….but if you’re struggling with addiction, it’s an error

“When you can do in-game betting then you’re able to chase if you lost and then keep chasing throughout that entire game. Whereas, in the old days, you’d have to bet on another game to chase your losses,” Bechtold said.

The Gaming Control Board recognizes the problem. In addition to the 800-number, it allows gamblers to set limits on how much time or money they’re spending, or self-exclude. And nearly 15,000 people have done it since 2006.

“People that get on the sites but have control problems with their gambling, all those tools are in place to help them — but they have to choose to use them,” Harbach said.

Bechtold says it’s a difficult conversation to have with a gambler, especially someone in their 20s.

“Trying to convince someone who’s 24 that they can never gamble safely again is very difficult,” Bechtold said.

Also difficult, preparing for the onslaught that’s coming. These sites aren’t going away. In fact, they’re just getting started. Bechtold says it’s a sure bet that there aren’t enough counselors to keep up.

“Do we have enough help out there, do we have enough people who are trained to have that expertise in gambling addiction? We don’t,” Bechtold said.

In addition to the $400M casino-related revenues in March, Pennsylvanians spent $600M in games offered by the Pennsylvania Lottery. That’s more than a billion dollars wagered in one month.

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