Sports betting in Massachusetts ushers in a new era of gambling, along with new social risks

A new era in gambling begins in Massachusetts this week. As of Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 10 a.m., sports betting in casinos will be legal in the state. Legal mobile sports gambling is set to launch in the state in the coming weeks.

Rachel Wolberg is a research professor in the UMASS Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences and she is the principal investigator for the Massachusetts Gambling Commission’s Study on the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA).

Wahlberg spoke to WBUR’s Weekend edition.

Highlights from the interview

Regarding the expectations of the effects of the new law:

“We think the impact will be moderate. But there are some groups that we think will be vulnerable because of their lack of experience with gambling or because they are being targeted very specifically by sports betting operators in an attempt to expand a market: teenagers, young adults, women, immigrants, college athletes and people who are already recovering from problem gambling.”

For those most at risk of developing a gambling problem through sports betting:

Juniors: “Adolescents usually do not have much experience with gambling. And with legalization, ads will happen and social media influencers will influence. Adolescents will follow these examples and… are more likely to experience harm due to this lack of experience. Likewise with young adults, once they turn 21, they will be able to legally participate in this form of gambling, but they will still have relatively little experience.”

Women: “The research I reviewed suggests that women are not necessarily very comfortable entering and staying in a sportsbook, sort of like a casino. But as sports betting will be available online [soon] and women are much more comfortable gambling online, that’s a problem. Of further concern is that I have seen quite a few indications in the literature and in the media that sports betting operators are purposefully targeting women to try to increase the proportion of the sports betting population. And again, because of the lack of experience, women may be more likely to get into trouble.”

Immigrants: “Their vulnerability has more to do with their lack of comfort in the new culture.” The fact that they don’t speak English fluently, or the fact that they don’t have many recreational facilities in their communities, means that their recreational opportunities are limited. so they may be vulnerable because they don’t have other recreational options.”

College Athletes: “I’m certainly quite concerned about college sports betting in general because of what it means for the integrity of the games. But also college students who may have problem gambling are quite vulnerable in terms of the types of support their universities provide and colleges may be able to provide or be willing to provide if they develop a gambling problem.”

People in recovery: “[I’m concerned about] individuals already recovering from problem gambling. The strongest indicator of developing a gambling problem is having one in the past.”

A customer makes a sports bet at Ocean Casino Resort last month in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Wayne Parry/AP)

Regarding the nature of the damage:

“From a research perspective, we distinguish between individual harms [and harms to the community]. Individual harms can include mental health problems, depression or anxiety, as well as physical experiences of stress. So these individual experiences [spread] of the family, because someone who develops a gambling problem will spend more and more time… gambling and less and less time… with friends and family. And then there are harms to the community that are not just financial problems that an individual can cause to get money to gamble, but [situations that] it can also affect their ability to be effective at school or work, to the point of committing financial crimes to get money to gamble. [And that can continue through] experiences of depression so severe that they will attempt or be able to kill themselves.”

On the difficulty of facing problem gambling:

“The biggest barrier people face with problem gambling is that there is a big stigma attached to people’s relationship with money and people with problem gambling. One of the main barriers to seeking help for them is that they are so embarrassed and ashamed of the idea that they have failed to take care of their finances.”

“We need to understand that problem gambling is not just a financial problem, there is good evidence that the same brain mechanisms that affect people when they are addicted to drugs or substances like alcohol or nicotine, these same brain mechanisms work in the same way with gambling. So it’s a problem that people have a hard time recognizing and admitting to themselves.”

Employees work at the DraftKings sportsbook at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on November 20, 2018. (Wayne Parry/AP File)
Employees work at the DraftKings sportsbook at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on November 20, 2018. (Wayne Parry/AP File)

For ways to ward off trouble:

“If you’re worried that you might be vulnerable to developing a gambling problem, how about not gambling? Let’s find something else to do for someone who is starting to worry about their own gambling. There are tools that people can use on the spot to set limits on the amount of time they gamble.”

“If you’re starting to worry about a friend or family member’s gambling, then talking to that person – although it’s very difficult – just expressing your concern and asking if you can help can very often start a conversation that can lead to a person getting some help if they feel it is needed. [Or it can lead to the person] they reduce themselves because they realize that others are concerned about what they are doing.”

Advice for a person who decides to try sports gambling for the first time and who wants to avoid problems:

“Go to the bank. Withdraw exactly as much as you are willing to lose, which will be fun money. Take this money with you. Leave all your credit cards at home. Leave all your cards that you use to access money at home before you go to gamble. Oh, and another good idea is not to go alone, but to go with a few friends and make one of them a non-betting so they can collect everyone at the end of the night, get them all home safely.”

Contact for help:

If you or someone you know is struggling with a gambling problem, there are resources available to help.

  • Call the Problem Gambling Helpline: 1-800-327-5050
  • Individuals can call 1-800-327-5050 or visit to speak with a trained professional for support. Specialists are available 24/7. The services are available in multiple languages ​​and are free and confidential.
  • The Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Office of Problem Gambling and the Suicide Prevention Program have released an online free and anonymous screening tool for common mental health disorders, including problem gambling, at The goal of this initiative is to strengthen the individual, family and community connectedness of working-age men in Massachusetts. The screening tool empowers people to self-identify signs and symptoms, educate themselves about mental health topics, and connect with local resources to seek treatment.

Paul Connerney contributed to this report.

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