Problem Gaming Awareness Month was launched 20 years ago as a mere seven days. But it didn’t take long for the National Council on Problem Gambling to expand the weeklong focus on gambling addiction.
NCPG Executive Director Keith Whyte says a few years later, the non-profit organization started to hear from a grassroots coalition of invested parties that wanted to expand the initiative. That interest, from state treatment agencies, gaming operators, and vendors, continues to grow.
“We’re getting a lot more stakeholders on board,” Whyte says. “There are a lot of public awareness initiatives. It takes a while to snowball, but each year, you get a little more.”
Problem Gaming Awareness Month runs through the end of March. March 14 is Gambling Order Screening Day, hosted by Cambridge Health Alliance, encouraging healthcare providers to participate in gambling awareness procedures.
Whyte says it’s crucial for the medical community to recognize problem gambling as a disorder on par with alcohol, drug, and other addictive behaviors.
“When we started 20 years ago, one of our major goals was to get healthcare provides to screen their clients with problems,” he says. “The science is showing us clearly that many people with gambling problems are already in the healthcare system. But the stories from people in recovery told us what the science confirms, that rarely were they asked about gambling and their gambling problems were often undetected and untreated, even if they were being helped for substance abuse.”
Within the industry, awareness of issues related to gambling addiction and the need to address them have gained momentum. Cait DeBaun, American Gaming Association vice president, strategic communications and responsibility, thinks the gaming-industry’s recent growth obscures past efforts to address responsible gaming and problem gambling.
“A lot of the conversation today is about what’s new or how this has evolved,” DeBaun says. “But what’s most interesting to me is that while there’s never been more money invested or attention paid to problem gambling than there is today, problem-gambling awareness isn’t new. It’s foundational to who we are as an industry. The early interest in this space was in large part driven by industry initiatives.”
DeBaun notes that in the 1980s, Harrah’s(now Caesars) Entertainment started conversations about underage gambling and education and provided resources to address problem gambling. Harrah’s was also one of the first operators to create a problem-gambling hotline.
“When I reflect on where problem-gambling awareness has been and where it is today,” DeBaun says, “you can see the foundation that was raised and built upon in a really productive way to ensure that the people who need help have it.”
There are still myriad issues that need to be addressed. Whyte would like to see more states issue proclamations supporting Problem Gambling Awareness Month. And industry support, while steady, can always be improved.
“I think the opportunity for the industry is to continue to drive that conversation,” Whyte says. “They’ve got enormous resources. There are great people in the industry and harnessing all that experience and expertise, with their resources, we could revolutionize this field.”
But one of the most important steps would be a societal change that strips away the stigma of problem gambling. While other addictions are viewed as health-related issues, this one still “breeds shame and that’s where gambling addictions go to incubate and fester,” Whyte says.
What would help, Whyte believes, is for those with standing to speak out about and admit to their addictions. Athletes and celebrities have been forthcoming about being addicted to alcohol and drugs. But gambling problems are hidden.
“We know of many high-profile people who have sought help for gambling problems,” Whyte says, “and of course, we will always keep that confidential. For most of them, they feel it would still be such a negative. … They still see gambling addiction, and the general public still sees gambling addiction, as different and worse in some ways than substance abuse.”
If those with widespread recognition raised awareness, their impact would be immense. “Most importantly, it gives people permission to know it’s okay not to be okay,” Whyte says. “It uses their shared experience and hopefully their recovery journey as a powerful positive.”