March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month.
But that doesn’t change much of anything for Peggy Brown, the president of the Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado. She and her nonprofit, volunteer-run organization fight the fight year round.
And with limited funding and resources, no state programs to assist and Colorado’s ever-increasing gambling numbers — powered by legalized sports wagering which will mark the two-year anniversary of its arrival May 1 — it’s less of a fight and more of a steep, uphill battle.
“It’s quite a dilemma,” said Brown, a recovered gambling addict herself, in a recent phone interview with PayColorado. “… It’s not a real pretty picture right now.”
PGCC helpline calls continue to rise
The PGCC’s chief function is overseeing Colorado’s problem gambling helpline (1-800-522-4700). It’s done so since 1995.
The helpline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Answering those calls is a PGCC-contracted group of professional mental health and addiction therapists and counselors. They assist in getting helpline callers into 12-step recovery programs or signing up for voluntary self-exclusion lists if needed.
It’s one of the vital first steps in treating problem gambling.
It’s only part of a continuous battle, though.
Brown says the PGCC helpline received 6,546 calls in 2018.
In 2021, the Centennial State’s first full year with legalized sports betting, there were 9,686 calls.
That’s a 48 percent increase. And Brown says there’s been a 45 percent uptick alone since 2020.
The first few months of 2022 certainly haven’t brought any relief.
January saw the state of Colorado shatter records with a $574 million betting handle. And that was on sports wagering alone.
“Sports betting is definitely one of the most addictive forms of gambling,” Brown said. “And with Colorado being one of the top six or seven states nationally in terms of (sports betting) revenue, the calls keep coming and are going to keep coming.”
State’s high online usage exacerbates problem gambling
Colorado’s reliance on online sports betting/apps is helping elevate the state’s problem gambling numbers.
It’s a simple matter of math.
In 2021, 98.6 percent of the state’s $3.85 billion sports betting handle (ranked sixth nationally) came via online wagers.
That, quite simply, was the highest online percentage in the country among states with available online and retail sports wagering.
Combine that with a 2019 National Center on Problem Gambling-commissioned study which concluded that individuals who are gambling via mobile devices have higher rates of problem gambling.
It’s a troublesome combination for Colorado.
And certainly for the PGCC, which Brown insists remains “neutral” in its overall stance on legalized gambling.
As Brown explained:
“Online (gambling) has increased the addiction rate. We’re taking an already high-risk population and compounding it with the ease and availability of online gambling. There’s also the ease of accessing money with online payday loan services and so forth. When you go a physical casino, you tend to max out at some point. You can only write so many checks and go to the ATM so many times.”
Brown has hopes for a brighter future
With the passage of Proposition DD in November 2019 legalizing Colorado sports wagering, the bill earmarked $130,000 annually to treating problem gambling.
Brown says the PGCC receives $30,000 of that money just to run the helpline.
The remaining $100,000, minus administrative costs, goes toward the myriad problem gambling needs and costs around the state.
“We’re just struggling to keep our heads above water and trying to do best we can,” Brown said. “I don’t want to cry poor all the time — that’s not my intent — but funding is an issue and will continue to be an issue unless the state can help do something about it.”
To that end, Brown said the PGCC is in regular contact with a number of state agencies, including the Colorado Division of Gaming.
PGCC also is working with various organizations and businesses such as state casinos, the Colorado Lottery and national sportsbooks operating in the state to help with the problem gambling issue.
In addition, the PGCC is getting national guidance and assistance as well.
Brianne Doura-Schawohl, head of the responsible gambling consulting firm Doura-Schawohl Consulting LLC, spoke to the PGCC board in early March.
The always-in-demand Keith Whyte, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Problem Gambling, will follow suit in the coming weeks.
It certainly all helps in increasing the knowledge and awareness of problem gambling.
However, Brown insists nothing substantial can be done until there is more funding and additional resources devoted to dealing with the issue.
There is some light, though, at the end of the proverbial tunnel, she says.
“We’re currently with some pretty prominent people to help get legislation passed,” Brown said. We feel very positive that something is going to come out of that.
“… We’re kind of at a precipice. We need to get something done, and we need to get it done this legislative period.”