Massachusetts casino law scales back focus on gambling problems research

In 2011, Massachusetts passed casino legislation that required research be conducted into the health and economic effects of the gambling industry. The mandate was met with praise by those who work on gambling problems. Despite the initial intention, however, the research budget has declined as gambling has expanded, leaving the body of knowledge more limited than some had hoped.

In 2013, researchers in Massachusetts launched what was considered a landmark study about gambling by contacting 10,000 people in the state before any casinos were open. UMass Amherst professor Rachel Volberg, who heads the current gambling research, led the study using a “cohort study” method, which followed the same people over time. Another type of study looked at the introduction of casinos in the state and how it affected gambling behavior.

The initial survey found that 2% of the state’s population had severe gambling problems affecting their finances, jobs, or relationships, while another 8% were at risk. Despite the introduction of casinos, those numbers didn’t change. Researchers found that some people switched back and forth among gambling categories — between recreational and problematic.

In 2019, after five years and four follow-up surveys, the cohort study ended. This was only a year after MGM Springfield opened. Despite Massachusetts being hailed as a model for dedicating more money to gambling research than any other state, the study was considered to be expensive.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which oversees the Public Health Trust Fund, said the trust fund has a total of $24 million, with a part of that going towards research and responsible gaming programs. Debate over who controls the money has arisen, as the Department of Public Health and the Gaming Commission have different ideas of how the funds should be distributed.

Moving forward, the Gaming Commission plans to focus on the effects of online gambling, impacts on youth, budgeting tools for sports betting, and what might happen if convenience stores are allowed to have sports betting kiosks. Participants in the study hope that their findings will inform public health policy and be incorporated into prevention messaging and information about the availability of treatment for gambling addiction.