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Addiction experts warn: Texas push for online sports betting is a public health gamble

a close up photo of a person's concerned eyes with a background of money
Illustration by Wells Dunbar
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Lobbyists and some state lawmakers argue making online sporting betting legal would be a boon to the Texas economy. But others say it could come with serious public health consequences.

From Texas Standard:

Ads for sports-betting apps such as Caesar’s Sportsbook aired on Texas televisions during the Super Bowl – even though it sports betting is not legal in Texas.

Right now, New York is the most populous state with legalized sports betting. New Yorkers placed almost $1.7 billion in sports bets in January alone.

Texas' huge population and fanatical sports culture make it a "white whale" for the gambling industry. Plus, Texas is football country, and football is by far the most bet on sport.

But in Texas, gambling in general is still considered a "taboo industry."

"Texas is historically very culturally conservative with a very strong sort of religious component to the Legislature in that a lot of their lawmakers do display these kind of at least outwardly a very, like, no gambling, no taboo industries here kind of attitude,” said Becca Giden, director of policy for Eilers & Krejcik Gaming.

Still, Giden thinks it's inevitable that Texas will legalize sports betting.

The public health concerns related to gambling

If and when that happens, some Texans will be more vulnerable to the flipside of gambling's fun: gambling addiction. Chris Anderson knows all about that.

"I experienced going broke in the securities market and ended up in bankruptcy court. My house in foreclosure, ended up in divorce court, ended up in the suicide ward of Austin State Hospital,” Anderson said.

Anderson is now one of the few therapists in Texas who specializes in gambling addiction recovery. He says he sees patients all the time who are struggling with the pull of making just one more bet to cover their previous losses.

Gambling disorder affects approximately 1% of the adult population, and is likely even more common among younger adults. Anderson says it affects the brain just like a drug addiction.

"A lot of times we lump gambling, sex, cocaine all together, because all of those target what's called a dopamine neurotransmitter in the brain, which is the brain's pleasure center, and that dopamine gets elevated,” Anderson said. “In other words, the gambler is high in anticipation of the outcome."

The people most vulnerable to gambling addiction are those the sports betting industry covets the most: young men. Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, says they are the industry's key demographic.

“They're...actively targeted by the gambling industry marketing, and not necessarily because they tend to have gambling problems, but because they tend to be very active gamblers. But that means that there's higher risk there,” Whyte said.

Military service members and veterans have "twice the rate of gambling problems" compared to the general public, Whyte says. Also, research suggests the risk for gambling problems is higher in minority groups.

And the word "risk" doesn't quite capture what's at stake for some people with gambling addiction. Whyte says an entire life savings can be wiped out in a day of betting. That's partly because of the way people bet now in sports betting: it's mostly electronic.

“You can lose your house, you know, in a couple of bets,” Whyte said. “And so the speed with which you could drain your money, and especially money these days that is in electronic form. You know, it's just it's just digital ones and zeros.”

Does legalizing gambling makes it safer?

But that’s exactly why some argue legalizing betting is a way to make safer something so many Texans do already – to the tune of over $5 billion every year. Foreign operations take bettors' personal information and money with no guarantee they'll get paid.

“They might never even see their payout. And I've even heard of stories of betting platforms that pop up, and by the time you go to collect your winnings, they've disappeared completely and you're out,” said Cara Gustafson of the Texas-based Sports Betting Alliance.

Besides safety, she says not legalizing in Texas leaves money on the table -- potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax revenue that she says lawmakers could set aside for special education or property tax relief.

But legalized sports betting could also come with hidden costs. Whyte, of the National Council on Problem Gambling, says the "social costs" related gambling addiction add up, nationally, to about $7 billion a year.

“And those are primarily criminal justice and health care costs, so they fall primarily on state government,” Whyte said.

Whyte says betting can be legalized in a way that also protects people at risk for problem gambling. But that also requires serious investment in gambling addiction resources and prevention. He says that's something the state of Texas hasn't done -- even though its lottery program brought in almost $3 billion dollars in revenue in fiscal year 2021.

Gustafson and the Texas Sports Betting Alliance will lobby again for legalized sports betting in the 2023 legislative session, and she's confident about their prospects. That could be because its supporters include every pro Texas team, from the Rangers to the Rockets to Austin FC and more.

But Anderson, the recovering gambling addict and therapist, has a warning: “Gambling is not a win-win proposition… The question that is necessary for Texas legislators to ask if they're being responsible and responsibly doing their job is, what is the cost to the state of Texas and the citizens of the state of Texas of the losing side of the bet, and they're being completely irresponsible if they don't, because I promise you there is a cost.”

March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month. If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, call or text the National Problem Gambling Helpline Network at 1-800-522-4700 or visit ncpg.org. And if you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1- 800-273-TALK.