As FL considers casino expansion, advocates want to protect against ‘problem gambling’

Sports betting line at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images 2016

As lawmakers gather in Tallahassee today to consider a major expansion of gambling in Florida, including the legalization of sports betting, concerns are rising that adding wagering options through mobile platforms will spur addiction, especially among young people.

The compact between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe would allow residents at least 21 years old to wager on collegiate, pro, international, Olympic and more sports at seven casinos in partnership with pari-mutuel facilities, according to the 75-page 2021 Gaming Compact.

Under the compact, sports betting would be exclusively operated by the tribe or “its approved management contractor,” meaning pari-mutuels, expanding availability of casino games such as craps, roulette, slots, blackjack, poker, and more.

Although the deal would require the Seminole Tribe to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to gambling-problem prevention programs, some advocacy groups worry that lawmakers are more focused on generating revenue than adequate preventative measures and treatment. The deal guarantees a $2.5 billion payout to the state during the first five years.

When gambling becomes uncontrollable, sufferers may need medical help to get their lives in order.

Overall, as many as 2-3 percent of Americans gamble to excess, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling, an advocacy group. That amounts to 6 million adults and a half million teenagers, the group said, adding that nearly 15 percent of Americans gamble at least once per week.

Following approval of Amendment 3, the 2018 constitutional amendment that required voters to approve gambling expansion in Florida, the industry has seen tremendous growth but at a cost to public health, said Keith Whyte, the council’s  executive director.

That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can allow sports betting. Since then, “the floodgates have opened with over 20 states making the practice legal — the largest and fastest expansion of gambling in our history,” Whyte said in an email to the Phoenix.

“Unfortunately, on too many occasions that rush to tap into this new revenue stream has not seen the commitment of additional resources to organizations like the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling to help prevent and treat gambling problems that inevitably follow with gambling expansion,” Whyte said.

State resources for gambling problems

The compact does task the Seminole Tribe with working with the Florida council, a nonprofit organization under contract with the state, to publicize online resources and display printed material about compulsive gambling at its facilities.

With many teenagers and people under 21 owning cellphones and having access to gambling apps, young people could be susceptible to gambling addiction, advocates argue.

In 2019-20, 40 percent of callers to the Florida council’s 24-hour hotline reported that they started gambling at 25 or younger, said Jennifer Kruse, executive director of the group.

The rules for sports betting would restrict the game to those 21 years old and up, according to the compact, with sports betting offered via mobile devices connected to servers on tribal land. The arrangement is meant to get around Amendment 3, which doesn’t apply to tribal land.

But those 18 and up would be allowed to participate in fantasy sports contests, defined a “fantasy or simulation sports game or contest” in which a participant manages a team of professional athletes.

Kruse worries this may lead to addiction because of “the potential for youth to access it and the appeal,” she said in a phone conversation with the Phoenix.

“If we are going to introduce the compact, there should be additional resources for research [on teen gambling problems],” she said.  Young people with gambling problems represent “an additional burden on parents and society,” according to the council.

The tribe would be required to make an annual donation of at least $250,000 “per operational gaming facility” to the Florida council.

“The Seminoles, they are very supportive of the issue,” Kruse said. “They’ve supported the issue since the beginning.”

The council pointed to severe long-term consequences of a gambling addiction such as “divorce, loss of productivity, bankruptcy, and crime,” according to its website.

And advocates warn that gambling disorders can hurt careers, mental and emotional health, and relationships with others and can cause major financial problems.

In fact, severe cases of gambling addiction can lead to death, the national council noted, as “one in five people who have severe gambling problems will attempt suicide.”

‘A time bomb for addiction’

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, which lobbies against expansion of gambling, said a lot of kids already have online betting apps on their smartphones in places where sports betting is legal.

“If that’s not a time bomb for addiction, nothing is,” Sowinski said. “It’s not what we think of as sports betting. It’s prop [for proposition] betting — betting on whether the next play from scrimmage is going to be a hand-off or a pass; is Tiger [Woods] going to make this putt or not?”

“In the only mature markets in the world for this, the United Kingdom and Australia, it’s been proven to be more addictive than slot machines.”

Overall, a poll commissioned by No Casinos in early May suggested that 76 percent of Florida voters surveyed feel that they “should have the final say on this agreement,” compared to 13 percent who feel the Legislature should decide.

The organization noted that sports betting could “cause thousands of teens to have lifelong gambling problems, with 58 percent of voters agreeing with that suggestion compared with 24 percent who disagreed.

The statewide poll surveyed 800 likely Florida voters and was conducted by McLaughlin & Associates.

“In places where sports betting is legalized online and on smart phones, nearly half of children ages 11 to 16 have online betting apps on their phones and 15 percent say they make bets multiple times a month,” No Casinos wrote.