Launch of online betting in CT poses high stakes for heavy gamblers, experts say

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On Friday morning, Melodie Keen had a session with a client who recently relapsed — a sports bettor who hadn’t gambled in about two years.

“He was able to place bets right from his phone,” said Keen, referring to Connecticut’s gambling expansion, which ushered in widespread online wagering on Oct. 19. “It’s going to be very difficult for people in recovery and I’m quite certain the problem gambling issue in Connecticut is going to escalate because of the easy access.”

The legalization of sports betting and online gaming in Connecticut has brought much fanfare, but also concern over the ability of anyone in the state who’s at least 21 years old to bet from a hand-held device.

The ease of gambling on a phone, laptop or other device worries people such as Keen, clinical manager of gambling services at Connecticut Renaissance Inc., a nonprofit that provides behavioral health, addiction and criminal justice services.

One expert on problems related to gambling believes that Connecticut needs an independent commission to oversee sports betting with an independently run fund to sponsor research into the effects of gambling.

“Sports betting is like crack cocaine for young men,” said Declan Hill, an associate professor at the University of New Haven.

The issue came to the forefront last week when state Rep. Michael DiMassa, D-West Haven, 30, was charged with wire fraud in connection with what authorities say was a scheme to steal federal funds intended for COVID-related expenses.

According to the complaint, DiMassa spent thousands of dollars of the disputed money gambling at Mohegan Sun Casino. During his first court appearance, U.S. District Judge Sarah A.L. Merriam said DiMassa is “in treatment” for a gambling addiction.

The potential for a rise in gambling addiction connected with online gaming was also a major topic of discussion at the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling’s recent annual conference.

“We’ve seen it in other states,” Keen said. “As soon as it opened up, the problems have escalated.”

Ahead of the launch of online sports betting and casino gaming, the state announced a way for people to opt out. The so-called self-exclusion list allows people to voluntarily ban themselves from online and in-person gambling for a year, five years, or life.

“While this may be a form of entertainment many people can enjoy, for others, it can be a harmful addiction. The ability to voluntarily exclude yourself from these activities is one of the many tools available to help,” Michelle Segull, commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection, said in a written statement last month.

DCP, which regulates the gaming industry, is working with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Connecticut Council on Problem Gaming, and the three entities authorized to take bets: the Connecticut Lottery Corporation, and the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to raise awareness about problem gambling.

“By creating a barrier from participating, it allows those in recovery a much-needed respite from triggers and reduces the likelihood of relapse,” Diana Goode, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, said in a written statement.

But the council has not been satisfied with the controls in place.

“We hope to continue to work together to expand self-exclusion to include all types of gambling in order to protect all gamblers in CT,” Goode wrote.

The tribes already maintain their own separate self-exclusion lists for the casinos, and a portion of the revenues from the two tribal-owned casinos and the lottery go toward the state’s problem gambling fund.

Hill the University of New Haven professor who’s considered a top expert on match-fixing and corruption in the international sports industry, sees the expansion legalization of gambling in the U.S. as “one of the most significant social changes to America since the end of prohibition in the 1930s.”

The United Kingdom, which expanded legalized gambling well before the U.S., provides a cautionary tale for Connecticut and other states where online gaming and sports betting is now legal, Hill said in a recent intrview, adding that a commission in Connecticut could be modeled after the Gambling Commission in the U.K.

“There’s been a massive uptick in gambling addiction,” he said. “There’s well over 20,000 problem teenage gamblers in the U.K.”

A 2020 survey on young people and gambling from the commission found that 50 percent of 11- to 16-year-olds in England and Scotland have reported ever gambling, of which 51 percent of the respondents were with their parent or guardian the last time they gambled.

Research shows that sports betting is particularly harmful to young men.

“It leaves females largely alone with some exceptions,” Hill said. “It hits young men between ages of 14 and 35 hard.”