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Kentucky's gambling addiction cases may be more than it can handle


Millions of Americans watched men's college basketball last night. Millions more will watch Purdue face UConn for the title Monday. And there's a women's championship game today - the Iowa Hawkeyes versus South Carolina Gamecocks. There's also betting. The American Gaming Association estimates that nearly $3 billion will be legally wagered during the March Madness tournaments this year. But while the sports betting industry is booming, there are worries about problematic gambling behaviors and addiction. Jacob Munoz from member station Louisville Public Media reports.

JACOB MUNOZ, BYLINE: College basketball is king in Kentucky, where there's plenty of interest each year in whether big schools like the University of Louisville and University of Kentucky make it to the championship tournaments. Michael Barno is from Ohio and visited downtown Louisville on a March weekend.

MICHAEL BARNO: Since Ohio and Kentucky made it legal to gamble and sports bet, I would say I do it every three weeks. I probably put 50 bucks in or 100 bucks in.

MUNOZ: It wasn't this way until recently. While popular, sports betting was illegal in almost all states until a 2018 Supreme Court ruling. Now 38 states allow it. Kentucky has allowed bets on horse racing for years, but lawmakers finally legalized wider sports betting last year. However, some worry the wider adoption of sports betting will lead to an increase in unhealthy gambling behaviors. RonSonlyn Clark is a licensed gambling counselor and the president of the Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling.

RONSONLYN CLARK: You can sit in the comfort of your home while your family is sitting there watching TV at night. Most people are playing on their phones, and you can be placing sports bets at any time.

MUNOZ: The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 1% of American adults meet the criteria for having a gambling disorder. When Kentucky legalized sports wagering, it also created a fund to address problematic gambling behaviors. It's partially supported by tax revenue from sports bets. Clark says her nonprofit might apply for that funding, which could help them cover treatment costs and train gambling therapists, who are difficult to come by in Kentucky.

CLARK: It's hard to get in a lot of places to see a therapist, and it may take a month or longer. And if somebody's ready to talk and ready to make a change, they need to see somebody sooner than that.

MUNOZ: Sharon Custer is with the Institute for Responsible Gaming, Lotteries, and Sport at Miami University in Ohio. She says states should commit to bringing counselors on board.

SHARON CUSTER: It's really important that we're investing in a workforce and reinvesting over and over again in this workforce because it can't just be a one and done. Let's plop a whole bunch of people out there and hope that they stay in the field and in Kentucky to do it.

MUNOZ: Kentucky lawmakers expected sports betting to bring about $23 million in tax revenue in its first full year. More than half of that had already been met in the first four months, but some in the state legislature didn't want sports betting in the first place. Republican State Representative Josh Calloway has been a vocal critic.

JOSH CALLOWAY: Why would we introduce something into society and want to put something out there that we know has an addictive nature to it that causes people to get themselves in extreme financial situations?

MUNOZ: Calloway has unsuccessfully tried to place more restrictions, like raising the minimum age to place a sports bet from 18 to 21. Jim Whelan leads the Tennessee Institute for Gambling Education and Research. He notes that funding to treat problematic gambling is hard to come by. In 2022, the federal government spent about $575 million toward a national institute that addresses unhealthy behavior around alcohol.

JAMES WHELAN: And they provided $0 for gambling treatment, research about it, understanding pathology, etc., etc. So there really is a money issue.

MUNOZ: Back in Louisville, sports betting ads have popped up around the city. They usually display a helpline to call for gambling problems. Michael Barno says he's seen those warnings.

BARNO: I actually see them quite a bit.

MUNOZ: But he says he doubts if people use it.

BARNO: I don't know if actually anyone actually follows through on it if they did have a problem, for the most part.

MUNOZ: The American Psychiatric Association says gambling to deal with one's emotions or not being able to stop gambling are potential signs of a disorder. As millions of people watched the last days of this college basketball season, they'll be flooded with sports betting advertisements, and some will struggle with the urge to place a bet. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Munoz in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jacob Munoz
[Copyright 2024 WKU Public Radio]