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Federal sports betting bill is introduced with assist from Northeastern’s Public Health Advocacy Institute

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, a New York Democrat, said his SAFE Bet Act will offer regulation to protect people in the U.S. from gambling-related harm in the new era of high-tech sports betting.

The silhouette of a person in front of a large screen airing a basketball game.
March Madness is one of the busiest times of the year for sports betting. AP Photo/John Locher

With the support of three Northeastern University advisers, new federal legislation to regulate sports betting as a public health issue was announced in Washington on Tuesday — less than four hours before the opening game of the NCAA basketball tournament.

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, a New York Democrat, said his SAFE Bet Act will offer regulation to protect people in the U.S. from gambling-related harm in the new era of high-tech sports betting that was legalized by a 2018 Supreme Court ruling.

Joining Tonko at a news conference were representatives of Northeastern’s Public Health Advocacy Institute, led by law professor Richard Daynard.

Daynard helped lead the legal fight against Big Tobacco, an exhaustive struggle that languished for decades — until breakthrough court judgments of the 1990s led to large penalties against the industry and bans on secondhand smoke in virtually all public places.

“We’re not talking about an activity. We’re not talking about gambling. This is not an attack on gambling,” said Daynard, referring to the artificial intelligence that drives the betting programs of many companies. “Whatever one thinks about gambling as it was known five years ago before the gates opened to online sports betting, this is a different product.”

Daynard applauded Tonko’s proposal in light of the recent Super Bowl, for which online bets were made at a rate approaching 15,000 per second.

“The time has come for us all to roll up our sleeves and make it happen,” Daynard said.

Also appearing at the news conference were Mark Gottlieb, executive director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, and Harry Levant, who serves as gambling policy adviser to the institute, as well as a gambling therapist for the Ethos Treatment centers in Pennsylvania. 

Daynard, Gottlieb and Levant have been working with Tonko to develop federal legislation that defines gambling as an issue of public health — on the same level as tobacco, alcohol, opioids and other addictive products.

“Sports always belonged to the American people, the American family,” Levant said. “Sports now belongs to the gambling industry. I am actually hopeful that leaders in the sports world — athletes, owners, league commissioners — will come forward and join us to make gambling on sports as safe as possible.

“I would like to think there are people in those leadership positions, and potentially even gambling industry companies, who will say, ‘You know what? This thing has gotten out of control. It needs to be regulated to protect the American public.’”

Daynard noted that an estimated 7 million people in the U.S. are estimated to suffer from gambling addiction — a number that is likely conservative now that so many bets are made by cellphones.

“There has never been a study in the United States looking at the full scope of public harm related to the expansion of commercialized gambling,” Levant said. “It has been looked at in other countries, such as Australia, the U.K. and Finland. These other countries have found that approximately 15% of the general public suffers gambling-related harm on an annual basis.”

Levant noted that those studies included friends, family and co-workers who were affected by someone they know who struggles with gambling.

“If the 15% number holds true in America,” Levant said, “we’re talking of upwards of 70 million people a year suffering harm related to gambling.”

Tonko has been a leader in congressional efforts to regulate sports betting, which is permitted in 38 states and the District of Columbia. Thirty states have also legalized mobile betting via phones. 

Tonko last year introduced the Betting on our Future Act, which sought to ban all online and electronic advertising of sports gambling. The SAFE Bet Act is a next-generation version of that bill, he said.

The new legislation focuses on “advertising along with affordability and the AI impact on gambling,” Tonko said. “And with that I think we have a safer product.”

The bill seeks to prohibit advertising during live sporting events while banning promotions that offer bonus bets, odds boosts and other inducements.

It forces companies to conduct affordability checks on customers, bans deposits via credit cards and limits customers to five deposits over a 24-hour span.

And it prohibits companies from using AI to track a customer’s gambling habits, which are used to offer individualized promotions as well as “microbets” and other AI-powered products.

“One of my greatest concerns about an unregulated sports betting industry is its use of massive supercomputing power and artificial intelligence to deliver thousands of instant microbets that are carefully tailored to each consumer’s gambling profile,” Gottlieb said. “These sorts of bets are offered every few seconds of practically every sporting event and provide opportunities for hundreds if not thousands of bets during a single contest.”

The SAFE Bet Act also calls for data collection of sports betting nationwide, a surgeon general’s report on its public health issues and a national clearinghouse for people who want to be excluded from contact with betting companies.

Tonko plans a bipartisan approach in both the House and Senate to fine-tune the bill’s language in hope of creating support over the next two months.