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Ease and accessibility.

That’s what people who deal with problem gambling fear most about the advent of online gaming, be it online sports betting, online casino games, ilottery or ikeno, all of which Connecticut lawmakers could approve before the current legislative session wraps up in June.

What can happen when gambling involves little more than tapping a mobile phone?

In New Jersey, which embraced online gaming in 2013, professor Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at the Rutgers School of Social Work, led a study several years later that found that 6.3% of the state’s residents had a gambling disorder — three times the national average of 2.1%.

And that was before New Jersey legalized sports betting in 2018, becoming one of the first states to do so following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that made it possible.

Since 2018, sports-betting related calls to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey’s helpline have increased month after month, according to Dan Trolaro, the council’s assistant executive director. Before 2018, sports-betting related calls represented 4% to 8% of all problem-gambling calls; since legalization, they’ve been 12% to 16% of all calls.

Trolaro said 90% percent of sports betting in New Jersey takes place online rather than at brick-and-mortar casinos.

Much of the buzz around the prospect of online gaming and sports betting in Connecticut has centered on the revenue it could generate for the state while enabling the state and the casino-owning Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to keep pace with competitors.

Bills before the legislature would authorize the tribes to provide retail sports wagering at their respective casinos — Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun — as well as provide online sports betting and online casino games on applications anywhere in the state. The Connecticut Lottery Corp. would be allowed to introduce a sports-betting app and up to 15 retail sports-betting locations, some of which could be sublicensed to Sportech Venues, which operates nearly a dozen off-track betting facilities in the state.

The lottery also would be authorized to sell draw-game tickets online and offer online keno.

It would be an understatement to say gambling could become convenient in Connecticut, an eventuality that should concern people, said Brianne Doura-Schawohl, vice president of U.S. policy and strategic development for EPIC Risk Management, “a global harm-minimization consultancy.” Doura-Schawohl previously worked for problem-gambling councils in Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as the National Council on Problem Gambling.

“It used to be when you ran out of money in a casino, you had to get up and go to the ATM,” she said. “Now you just refill your account from a credit card. You can gamble any time from the comfort of your home, on your phone.”

“That can be disastrous,” she said.

It’s not that the new forms of gambling necessarily are more addictive, Nower said, it’s that they’re so much more accessible and tend to appeal to a demographic with its own set of vulnerabilities.

Sports wagering is popular among young (ages 21 to 35), well-educated white males of some means, a group less familiar with gambling and its potential pitfalls than the typical casinogoer. Sports bettors are apt to believe skill is involved and that their knowledge of a team, for example, improves their chances of placing a winning wager. Some are confident in their ability to earn a profit.

One small, 20-person study of young people found they didn’t see sports betting as a form of gambling at all but rather as an easy way to make money, pay bills and have fun with friends, Trolaro said.

“People love their sports and they love to gamble. What happens when the two converge?” Doura-Schawohl said.

Problem-gambling advocates agree it’s important that jurisdictions that authorize online gaming and sports betting, and the operators that provide those services, enact safeguards, preferably in advance.

“In my opinion, the problem with the new forms of gambling is that states legalize them before they put the infrastructure to deal with them in place, and then they respond to that by throwing money at treatment,” Nower said. “That’s ineffective.”

Nower said states should be prepared to respond to groups gambling at higher levels and ensure counseling services and treatment programs are in place to help them when they have problems. The introduction of sports wagering, in particular, warrants a plan to introduce messaging in schools, for “reaching those who will be bombarded by the advertising,” she said. “All of these things should be put in place before it’s legalized.”

Doura-Schawohl said she was impressed that Connecticut lawmakers are considering a bill devoted to consumer protections that would be implemented in connection with sports betting, a legislative first of its kind among the 30-odd states that have joined Washington, D.C., in legalizing sports betting. But the bill falls short, she said.

“What helpline is it referring to? There is a national helpline; why isn’t that one listed?” Doura-Schawohl said. “There’s too much ambiguity and nothing about dollars. Every time a new form of gambling is approved, there needs to be an increase in funding for problem-gambling services.”

Diana Goode, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, has repeatedly delivered that message while testifying before the legislature. While advocating neither for nor against gambling, the council seeks to help those affected by problem gambling.

Goode said last month that more than 100,000 Connecticut residents and 275,000 family members are affected by problem gambling every day, numbers sure to rise if the proposed expansion of gambling in the state materializes. The numbers break down to 735 individuals and 1,911 family members in each state House district and 3,056 individuals and 7,946 family members in each Senate district.

The council recommended that 1% to 3% of the revenue from expanded gambling be dedicated to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ Chronic Gamblers Treatment & Rehabilitation Account and that 10% of the account’s revenues be diverted to the council, which focuses on advocacy, education and prevention and operates a 24-hour helpline offering support via phone, live online chats and texts.

One of the gaming bills calls for the lottery’s annual contribution to the DMHAS account to be doubled from $2.3 million to $4.6 million. Historically, 5% of the contribution — $115,000 — has helped fund the helpline.

The gaming tribes also help fund the council, with the Mohegans providing $23,000 a month, or $276,000 annually, and the Mashantuckets providing $18,000 a month, or $216,000 annually, Goode said. Sportech Venues also supports the council.

None of the bills before the legislature specifies how the tribes’ problem-gambling contributions would change.

“Online gaming is our biggest worry. It’s so easy and accessible,” Goode said. “We’ve been asked to be part of developing the online platform (along with representatives of the tribes, the lottery, Sportech and DMHAS). It’s so important to be in on it at the beginning.”

She said the platform is being designed to display the council’s messaging, with options for gamblers to place limits on the amount of time they spend wagering and alert them when they’ve reached pre-set thresholds for spending and or/losses.

Goode also believes self-exclusion programs should be strengthened before new forms of gambling take hold. Such programs enable a gambler aware of his own gambling problem to have his name added to a list of those legally banned from a gambling facility.

“Right now, a person can self-exclude himself from one casino and go to the other casino,” she said. “We want to take an active role in making sure people can exclude from all the brick-and-mortar lottery locations that could be coming online, too.”

Connecticut, lacking a gaming commission, would turn to the state Department of Consumer Protection’s Gaming Division to regulate new forms of gambling.

“We’re going to have to make sure they have enough people,” Goode said. “We can’t expect to give them more responsibility without more staff. We need to fund them.”

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