New Problem Gambling Study Presents Unexpected Results

Written By Steve Ruddock on November 11, 2014
Surprising New Gambling Study

It’s an argument that makes sense: Increased access to gambling should lead to an increase in the percentage of problem gamblers. However, a new study conducted by the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) with the help of SUNY at Buffalo State painted a different picture.

What gives this particular study so much weight is who performed the study, and how it was funded. The University of Buffalo received a $3 million grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to conduct the study into the rate of problem gambling over the past decade.

One of the researchers, Dr. John Welte, PhD, is certainly not a shill for the gambling industry. In a previous study Dr. Welte concluded that people living within 10 miles of a casino are twice as likely to show signs of problem gambling.

Therefore, the current study is in direct contradiction with his previous research, which makes the study difficult to simply dismiss by opponents of online gambling on the grounds of bias.

What they found

The study is over a decade in the making as the researchers, John W. Welte, PhD and Grace M. Barnes, PhD from the University of Buffalo along with William F. Wieczorek, PhD of SUNY conducted a telephone survey from 2011-2013 and compared the results to an identical survey conducted back in 1999-2000.

What they discovered was that problem and pathological gambling rates remained consistent despite the rise of Internet gambling in the 2000’s and the proliferation of casinos across the country.

Furthermore, the study found participation rates had decreased over that time period. “Our results show it is clear that U.S. residents are gambling less often,” Welte stated in a press release.

This creates a juxtaposition with his prior research. If proximity increases the likelihood of problem gambling why haven’t the rates increased with the addition of online gambling?

Welte speculated on two potential reasons:

“It may be due to the economic downturn we experienced starting in 2008, which resulted in a decline in casino business.”

“It also could be due to the ‘theory of adaptation’ — that while initial increases in exposure to gambling venues lead to increases in rates of problem gambling, a population will eventually adapt and further negative consequences will not continue.”

Other possible reasons

Conjecture Alert!

My argument against the theory that access leads to increased problem gambling has always been the same: The people who are likely to be problem gamblers are not deterred by a lack of access to gambling. These are the people that will seek out underground casinos and go to great lengths to gamble online even where it is prohibited.

Let’s also not overlook that it’s far easier (both in terms of access and convenience) to burn through a couple hundred dollars playing keno or buying scratch tickets than it is to gamble online. So, as long as these basic gambling options are present in society, problem gamblers will always have an outlet, with or without Internet gambling.

Another explanation for why problem gambling rates have not increased with the onset and rise of online gambling likely has to do with the logistics of gambling online.

Gamblers cannot simply cash their paycheck and deposit that money to an online casino. It requires setting up an account, using some form of payment processing (be it credit card, eCheck, or online eWallet), and of course withdrawals are from immediate, and can take up to several weeks to process.

This might also help explain why problem gambling rates increase when people live in close proximity to a land-based casino, but not when they have access to online gambling. Quite frankly, the logistical constraints of online gambling are not ideal for someone simply looking for the rush of gambling, especially if your winnings are going to be tied up for 7-10 days.

Finally, online gambling is just different.

Every bit of data we have indicates that the crossover between land-based gamblers and online gamblers is much smaller than anyone anticipated. Gambling at a casino, going to the racetrack or an off-track betting parlor, or even playing keno at a bar, are social activities, while online gambling is for all intents and purposes a solitary pursuit. Part of the allure for problem gamblers could be the ability to drown your sorrows with other people or have somebody to celebrate when you hit big.

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Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock is a longtime member of the online gambling industry. He covers the regulated US online casino and poker industries for variety of publications, including,,, and USA Today.

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