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Gambling addiction is on the rise in Ohio. Advocates are working to meet the demand

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Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
Monthly calls to the gambling addiction hotline have nearly doubled since sports betting was legalized in Ohio.

More than a quarter of a million Ohioans have a problem gambling disorder, and it’s been rising rapidly. The number of people with the disorder tripled from 2017 to 2022, according to the most recent Ohio Gambling Survey.

Then last year, sports betting became legal in Ohio.

It has completely changed the landscape,” said Michael Buzzelli, associate director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio.

State leaders said it was important to legalize sports betting because it wasalready happening– just unregulated and untaxed. But it’s come at a cost: experts say the proliferation of sports betting has led to an increase in addiction.

“You're talking about mortgaging houses, selling cars, emptying college tuitions,” Buzzelli said. “These are things that happen every day that we hear about every day in treatment.”

Since the legalization of sports betting, Buzzelli said there’s been a surge in requests for help. The organization’s monthly calls to their problem gambling hotline have nearly doubled.

Ohio advocates are hoping to build a workforce of counselors to meet the demand.

In ‘every corner of the state’

It used to be that casinos were the epicenter of gambling in Ohio. While you can still wager to the tune of slot machines beeping and poker chips sliding across velvet tables – today, it’s more common to take place in a much quieter, ubiquitous form: online.

“It's in our back pocket, on our phones in every corner of the state,” Buzzelli said.

Sports betting has made gambling more accessible than it has ever been in Ohio. It’s not just picking a team to win: you can bet on every pitch in a baseball game, wagering every 15 seconds, said Buzzelli.

For many, gambling is a harmless form of entertainment. But for some, said Rachel Johnson, chair of the Problem Gambling Coalition of Southwest Ohio, it’s an addiction that needs to be taken seriously. Treatment often looks different than it does for substance use disorders, and fewer providers know how to provide care for gambling disorders.

“I think training financial competence, financial literacy is crucial to being able to provide treatment,” Johnson said. “It's incredibly important to understand how that has impacted the person's life because it is such a huge part of gambling.”

And finding treatment isn’t as easy or instantaneous as placing a sports bet.

Training providers

So, Johnson and other advocates are working on expanding that training.

The Problem Gambling Network of Ohio is hosting workshops. They’re offering fellowship opportunities for social workers to go to casinos and study gambling. They built a network of telehealth providers who can treat the issue in rural parts of the state.

A map of Ohio shows disordered gambling treatment by county. Only Cuyahoga county has five or more providers, while much of Ohio has none.
Problem Gambling Network of Ohio
Gambling-specific treatment is hard to come by in many parts of Ohio.

Buzzelli said it’s paying off: he believes Ohio leads the nation in problem gambling certifications, with around 80 social workers endorsed to treat gambling disorders. But, he said it’s still far from enough to address the growing number of young people developing gambling addictions.

We have 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds who are sports betting, who are having problems. A lot of them probably live on college campuses. Is there someone on that campus who can help them?”

Building awareness

Nearly a quarter of Ohioans with problem gambling disorders are under the age of 24.

With the growing number of young people developing gambling addictions, University of Cincinnati associate professor of social work Gregory Stewart said the southwest Ohio college wanted to be a part of the solution.

He said they anticipated the sharp rise in gambling addiction among young people. So, last year, the university added coursework focused on treating problem gambling. He hopes the graduates can go on not just to serve college campuses, but to fill in gaps to care across the state.

Certainly the major metropolitan areas in the state have individuals who are trained in this area,” he said. “But now the goal is … whatever county I live in, is there something close to me that I could be able to have as a local resource to support me?”

“It's in our back pocket, on our phones in every corner of the state.”
Michael Buzzelli, associate director of Problem Gambling Network of Ohio

In its first year, sports betting brought in around two hundred million dollarsto the state. 2% of that tax revenue goes back into treatment. Advocates like Stewart and Buzzelli hope to use it to help as many people as possible, and to bring more awareness to its prevalence across Ohio.

“We don't want people to think, it doesn't happen in my community, it doesn't happen in my family, because it very well could be happening very close to you,” he said.

If you or someone you love is experiencing gambling addiction, call 1-800-589-9966.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.