New Jersey has established itself as a leader in sports betting, but this success may come at a cost as the state is seeing a rise in gambling addiction. Since sports betting was legalized in 2018, residents of New Jersey have placed $33.7 billion in bets, surpassing even Nevada, the home of Las Vegas. However, data shows that this may be causing harm to many residents as calls to the state’s gambling helpline have nearly tripled since 2018, reaching over 27,000 last year, according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling. The executive director of the council, Felicia Grondin, attributes this increase, in part, to the excessive advertising of sportsbooks.
A study from the Rutgers University Center for Gambling Studies reveals that the rate of high-risk problem gamblers in New Jersey is three times the national average. Lia Nower, the director of the Gambling Studies Center, states that this is due to the abundance of gambling opportunities in New Jersey, which are accessible 24/7 and also available in neighboring states. The study found that 13% of New Jersey residents qualify for what the study defines as a gambling problem, compared to 3% to 5% nationwide. It also found that 6% of the state’s population is considered “high-risk” for gambling addiction, while only 2% are considered high-risk at the national level.
However, supporters of gaming argue that the legalization of sports betting four years ago in New Jersey has helped increase treatment opportunities for problem gamblers and decrease the stigma of seeking support. Casey Clark, the senior vice president of the American Gaming Association, which represents sportsbooks and casinos, states that “because of the expansion of sports betting, problem gambling resources have never been better funded than they are today.” He adds that this is essential for the industry and helps ensure that those who need help can access the right resources.
Rise in Sports Wagering in New Jersey Leads to Eye-Popping Figures
The legalization of sports wagering in New Jersey in 2018 has led to staggering figures in terms of the amount wagered. After more than six years of pressure from pro-gambling outlets and legislators, the legislature approved the change a month after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 1992 federal law that barred such activity in most states. Since then, New Jersey sports bets have continuously risen from $1.2 billion in 2018 to $4.5 billion in 2019, $5.9 billion in 2020, $10.8 billion in 2021, and, preliminarily, $10.9 billion in 2022. According to Legalsportsreport.com, which tracks wagering around the country, this $33 billion wagering total has even outstripped Nevada, where more than $28 billion was wagered in the same span, making it the highest of any state in the nation.
However, this financial boon to New Jersey has also come with a rise in calls to the state’s compulsive gambling hotline. From 9,445 in 2018 to 27,407 in 2021, the last year for which data is available, calls have increased significantly. According to Grondin, between 25% and 30% of these calls are related to sports betting, which is now easier to access through online sites such as Fanduel and DraftKings. She also points to the increased advertising of these sites and agreements with professional sports leagues to promote them as contributing factors.
The demographics of sports betters is also concerning, with the majority being young and male. This can lead to issues such as children in middle school and high school gambling on their parents’ accounts, with no way to monitor it. Those operating sports betting outlets in New Jersey, either online or in person, must pay for a $100,000 sports wagering license, with half of that fee deposited into the State’s General Fund for “appropriation by the Legislature to the Department of Health to provide funds for evidence-based prevention, education, and treatment programs for compulsive gambling.” However, state Health Department officials have declined requests to reveal the amounts set aside and offered no information on what programs they have financed, making it difficult to acquire specific allocation information.
Legislature Eyes Limitations on Sports Wagering Advertisements
Legislation aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of sports wagering advertisements is currently in the Assembly Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee, according to Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Bellevile), a co-sponsor. The bill is a resolution that “condemns the over-proliferation of pro-gambling advertisements in the State of New Jersey” and “urges sports betting and gambling companies operating in the state … to exercise restraint and good judgment as they engage in advertisements.”
While it has no specific restrictions or mandates, Caputo believes it is a good move toward easing the impact of sports betting ads and their potential negative results. “What really kicked this off is Covid,” Caputo said. “People were locked in their homes and picked up the addiction. There is the over marketing of the companies, a vicious attempt to get market share and kids are being affected by it. You talk to young kids and most of them are gambling already and it is due to these over the top ads.”
He also vows to propose additional legislation that would bar gambling sites from contracting with local universities to introduce gambling to students, a practice that has been done at Syracuse University, Louisiana State University and the University of Colorado. “Imagine colleges giving incentives to get kids to gamble,” Caputo said.
But he added, “We are limited because the advertising is in two states, you need the federal government to enact legislation. I want to work with the state Division of Gaming to do what they can do to control this.” He also urged that pressure be put on the Federal Trade Commission to tighten their grip on such ads: “Maybe they need to be sued … It should be a class action suit, similar to the one against the vaping companies.”
Legalization of Gambling and the Availability of Help for Addicts
Dan Trolaro, a recovering gambler who spent time in jail for embezzling funds to feed his addiction, agrees that the increased options for gambling are dangerous. “It gives more opportunity for people to experience this novelty, it is new, it’s exciting, it’s different and the marketing is different,” he said. “When you are promoting a so-called ‘risk free’ bet you can get someone hooked that way. For a percentage of the population that becomes a habit.”
Trolaro, who grew up in Central Jersey, said he learned about gambling as a youngster: “It was low stakes, put a dollar on the games and it gave you a rooting interest, horse racing was my first love and it progressed from there.” With a family friend who was a bookie, his addiction progressively got worse. After the events of September 11, 2001, it took a turn for the worst. Trolaro, who was working at Goldman Sachs, lost many friends that day and turned to gambling as a means of escape.
He said he eventually embezzled money from clients at Prudential Insurance, where he worked, and spent four years in prison. After his release, he began volunteering with a crisis hotline in 2017. But Trolaro, who co-hosts a gambling addiction awareness show on WFAN Radio, said the legalization of gambling also helps promote options for addicts and those seeking help. “There are more areas and avenues to seek help, no one really talked about gambling problems and it was not viewed as a real addiction before,” he said. “We are starting to see people feel more comfortable at talking about it and promote this concept that it is okay.”
Alan Feldman, a distinguished fellow on responsible gambling at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, International Gaming Institute, agrees. “Now that you have some legalization, you also have some requirements that gambling sites promote access to help. I would hope that has helped those who need to seek treatment,” said Feldman. “If they are getting help that should be seen as a good thing.” He says that problem gamblers are among the most difficult to identify and move into treatment because most have few outward signs like those of drug addicts or alcoholics. “The best estimate is that about 15% of problem gamblers seek treatment, it has always been a very big struggle,” Feldman added. “But now there are more people seeking information about treatment information about where they might get support.”