UMass study shows problem gambling not so hard to shake

  • Construction continues at MGM's downtown casino project June 8, 2017, in Springfield. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2018

AMHERST — For many observers of gambling, a belief has long existed that once a person becomes a problem gambler, frequenting casinos, laying down bets and participating in games of chance, the addiction is hard to kick.

But results from a baseline study on gambling behavior in Massachusetts, conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health and Health Sciences on behalf of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and released in a report Jan. 10, show that this perception may not be accurate.

Lead author Rachel Volberg, an associate professor and epidemiologist in the School of Public Health, writes in the Massachusetts Gambling Impact Cohort Study that there is an “apparent ease with which people move in and out of problem gambling status within a given year.”

“It’s pretty clear that people phase in and out of the problem gambling group,” Volberg, an expert in gambling and problem gambling, said in a statement. “This movement is different than the way problem gambling has been characterized in the past. Until recently, the general orientation has been that disordered gambling is an unremitting chronic condition.”

The UMass research team was selected by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in 2013 to lead the comprehensive, multi-year study. During the initial project, funded at $3.64 million, the researchers interviewed and tracked more than 3,000 respondents, made up of people who might change their gambling habits.

The respondents were identified through community and patron surveys, baseline demographic information, census and labor statistics and socioeconomic indicators, and those interviewed included people who never gambled and others who gamble regularly.

Explicitly written into the state legislation, Section 71 of the 2011 Expanded Gaming Act required the commission to establish “an annual research agenda” to assist in understanding the social and economic effects of the introduction of casino gambling in Massachusetts, and to help in making annual scientifically based recommendations to the state Legislature.

The baseline information in the so-called cohort study will be used by policymakers and regulators to create policies aimed at maximizing the benefits and minimizing the harms of expanded gambling in Massachusetts.

The data are being released prior to the scheduled September opening of MGM Springfield and the June 2019 opening of Wynn Boston Harbor. So far, the only gaming site developed under the state law is the Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, which opened in 2015.

Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the gaming commission, said the data will help commissioners develop strategies and inform decisions they make.

“It will be used to compare any changes in the landscape after all of the gaming facilities have opened,” Driscoll said.

She expects the studies to continue indefinitely.

“At this point, we envision the research project moving forward for the foreseeable future,” Driscoll said.

People were surveyed in 2013-14 and again in 2015 and provided information on their gambling habits.

“This has significant value as it can highlight risk and protective factors important in developing effective prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery support services,” Volberg said

According to the report, only 49.4 percent of individuals who were problem or pathological gamblers during the first two years were in this same category in 2015, with large numbers transitioning into what are known as the at-risk gambling and recreational gambling categories.

At-risk gamblers also didn’t remain in the same category, with some transitioning to recreational gambling, though a significant minority became problem or pathological gamblers.

“We’ve seen this movement in studies done in other jurisdictions, but this will be news to some researchers who are used to thinking of problem gambling as a progressive and chronic disorder,” Volberg said.

In their work, researchers observed a statistically significant, though what they termed “quite small” increase, at between 2 and 3.2 percent, in overall gambling participation in the groups.

Meanwhile, the report found the incidence of problem gambling in Massachusetts at 2.4 percent, which is considered high compared to studies done elsewhere, especially with the major casinos not yet open.

It’s uncertain why, but other studies have different “gambling landscapes,” use different measures of problem gambling and have shorter follow-up periods.

Other factors, the report states, may include publicity about casino developments in Massachusetts, political advertising associated with a ballot initiative to repeal casinos, and advertising by casinos in Connecticut and Rhode Island seeking to maintain their competitive advantage.

Before beginning this research, Volberg predicted that the research initiative would change the intellectual landscape and knowledge base about gambling. This has happened, though she described it as “nuanced.”

“Based on this new study, researchers will think about gambling behavior in new ways,” Volberg said.

Mark Vander Linden, director of research and responsible gaming for the commission, said in a statement the data have public health implications for identifying and supporting services that will be most useful in preventing and treating problem gambling.

Future analyses will focus on predictors of problem gambling, whether there are gender differences in these predictors, and if there are predictors of problem gambling remission and how accessing treatment works toward reducing problem gambling.

In addition to Volberg, other members of the research team at UMass Amherst are Rosa Rodriguez-Monguio, Ed Stanek, Vivian Cronk, Valerie Evans, Alissa Mazar and Martha Zorn, all in the public health department; Laurie Salame, of hospitality and tourism management; and Henry Renski from landscape architecture and regional planning.

An economic analysis team from the Donahue Institute includes Mark Melnik, Rebecca Loveland, Carrie Bernstein, Rod Motamedi, Andrew Hall and Thomas Peake, with Mark Nichols from the University of Nevada Reno. Robert Williams of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta is also a member of the research team.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.