Legalized sports betting will create a public health risk, predicts Northeastern University professor

People watch coverage of the first round of the NCAA college basketball tournament at the Westgate Superbook sports book, Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Sports betting could soon be legal throughout the United States.

Richard Daynard, University Distinguished Professor of Law.

Wagers on professional and college games had been permitted solely in Nevada until last May, when a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court enabled states to decide whether to sanction it. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have either legalized or offered legislation for gambling on sports. A bipartisan federal bill has also been introduced by the U.S. Senate.

A proliferation of casinos across the country has already eaten into the savings of people who didn’t previously have access to slot machines and roulette wheels, says Richard Daynard, University Distinguished Professor of Law and President of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern. He argues that the emergence of legal sports betting by smartphone will create even more vulnerability.

Daynard, who previously has investigated the legal responsibility of the tobacco industry, shared his insights on sports betting as a public health issue. Like tobacco and alcohol companies, he says, legal bookmakers will profit most of all from users who are susceptible to addiction.


Now that sports betting is on the verge of becoming universal, what will be the impact?

Gambling is similar to alcohol use. Most people who use alcohol, along with most people who gamble, are not addicted. They can do it casually. There are no symptoms, nothing terrible happens to them, they don’t feel terrible if they don’t deal with it.

But there’s a subset in both cases of people who are addicted. The subset produces a very high fraction of the revenue, so that a lot of alcohol consumption is done by very heavy users. If out of 100 people, only 10 are addicted, then the addict should be responsible for 10 percent [of revenues]; but no, they are responsible for 30 or 40 percent, because they’re at it all the time.

It’s something well known by the gambling interests, and by some alcohol manufacturers that actually market alcohol in a way designed to appeal to addicts. You can assume that somebody who is in the business of producing something that is addictive understands that the addiction is an important basis of the business.

Hasn’t gambling always been accessible? Why does the vulnerability grow now that it’s being legalized?

There were [illegal] bookies, it was possible to gamble, but it was hard. And therefore there was simply a lot less of it. Anything that expands the availability of gambling is going to expand pathological gambling and the problems that follow from it: relationships, people blowing through the family money, their kids’ savings for college, etc. I mean, that stuff is going to happen.

Can there be a public health response? What can be done to help gambling addicts?

There is no reason to think that the therapies are particularly effective—that the availability of Gamblers Anonymous counteracts the expansion of gambling addiction. There were “quit smoking” programs in the 1990s, there was a lot of expansion of that, and that was good. The average person who is hooked on nicotine and gets unhooked has made, depending on how you count them, something between five and 15 unsuccessful efforts to quit.

With gambling, I assume it’s similar. Maybe you think about doing something, maybe you go to a meeting, and it’s important to have it available. But it is in no sense an answer to the public health problem.

Most American gamblers used to have to travel to Nevada in order to make sports bets legally. What will be the impact of making those wagers instantaneously by smartphone?

It is a race to the bottom. Once you make gambling available every possible way, at some point you will saturate the market. But you will saturate it at a very high public-health cost. There will be an awful lot of unhappy people and unhappy families and impoverished families. A lot of addictive behavior is impulsive, and if you have difficulty resisting something, then having it at your fingertips is going to make it all the harder to resist.

It’s really hard to imagine anybody who is addicted to gambling who is not going to be gambling his or her last penny on their cell phone.

An argument against Prohibition in the 1930s was based on the public demand for alcohol. By taking the business away from criminals, the government could tax and regulate the sale of alcohol. Does the same argument hold true for sports betting?

Prohibition wasn’t politically viable, so it got repealed. But did it reduce the amount of alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths and injuries, to the users and to other people on the road, and to their wives and kids and the people they ran into?

The fact is that prohibition was effective, and that when you repealed it, rates of alcoholism went right back up to where they had been. It is the third leading preventable cause of death. I actually am teaching the leading causes of death this afternoon, so let me give you the numbers: It caused about 85,000 deaths in the year 2000. Had Prohibition been still in effect, it would have been certainly a much lower number.

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