What Is Problem Gambling? Stakeholders Share Their View

Written By Chris Gerlacher on April 6, 2023

Problem gambling can be a misused phrase. It’s not a clinical term, and it’s vague enough to encompass everything from a gambling addict to someone who may be tentatively flagged as a gambler with an unhealthy habit

To gain clarity on the phrase “problem gambling,” PlayTexas asked the following three people with vested interests in gambling expansion to offer their definition of the term:

  • Christopher Anderson, problem gambling counselor based in Austin
  • Rob Kohler, consultant for the Texas Baptists hired to oppose Texas gambling legislation
  • Mark Griffin, Southern Baptist lobbyist 

All three broadly agreed that a problem gambler is some form of a gambling addict. Further, they all noted that a self-destructive component was central to a problem gambler’s behavior. 

Anderson thought gambling legislation made for “bad public policy” but hoped Texas would create a robust responsible gambling safety net if it passed gambling legislation. 

For both Kohler and Griffin, the creation of responsible gambling programs didn’t sway their opposition to expanding legal gambling. Kohler also noted that his concerns were wholly social and economic

Biblical and moral opposition only factored into Griffin’s position, and those considerations comprised small parts of his wider economic and social concerns.

Anderson highlights harmful gambling behavior that goes unchecked 

Christopher Anderson is a problem gambling counselor in Austin. During his career, he has drafted legislation and set up responsible gaming programs and helplines. He’s also the only gambling counselor in Texas with International Certified Gambling Counselor-II and Board Approved Clinical Consultant certifications. 

“The definition of problem gambling is pretty clearly laid out in the diagnostic and statistical manual as a disorder,” Anderson said. “Like any addiction, it’s when it becomes a problem. It becomes a problem when someone is engaging in a behavior that’s harmful to them and they don’t stop. That’s a really simple definition.”

Gambling addictions are unique among other common addictions. While substance abuse or behavioral addictions result in only negative consequences, sporadic gambling winnings can fool problem gamblers into thinking gambling is a good thing.

“That’s what a lot of treatment professionals don’t understand is that fundamental reality that you can place the next bet and win and solve a whole host of very real life problems,” Anderson said. “The best that the alcoholic can do by taking a drink is maybe taking the edge off last night’s hangover. You aren’t going to pay the rent on Friday by going to the bar and having a drink.” 

Chasing, as this behavior is known, is one of the hallmark problem gambling behaviors. The possibility of winning the next bet is a trap door that problem gamblers repeatedly fall into, and they have to break that illusion in treatment. 

Legislators downplay the costs of losing

That trap door isn’t limited to problem gamblers. Anderson said legislators who are enticed by potential gambling revenue downplay the social costs of gambling problems. 

“The way that everyone gets caught in the lie at every level is that we focus on … the benefits of the winning side of the bet, and we minimize and ignore the losing side of the bet,” Anderson said. 

Gambling bills tout revenue projections and sometimes job creation opportunities. They don’t include a ledger of potential problem gamblers, the costs of those problem gamblers’ thefts, hospital visits or law enforcement encounters. Supporters of gambling legalization can still make a case for gambling expansion, but they can’t do it honestly without a plan to counter the downsides of expanded gambling. 

“It’s just my opinion that it’s bad public policy,” Anderson said. “But it’s a fact that people in Texas are, in fact, gambling, and there is a cost to the citizens of the state of Texas. So if you do legalize it, make damn sure you allocate some of the revenue to the problems associated with the losing side of the bet.” 

If Texas passes a bill – gambling or not – it’ll have to prove that it can maintain a problem gambling fund. In nearby Arkansas, the state allocated $200,000 per year to address problem gambling but diverted those funds in 2015 to fund scholarships. Problem gambling patients who depended on the treatment credits funded partly by that $200,000 had their next appointments canceled

Gambling legalization isn’t enough to guarantee problem gambling funds. Legislators still have to honor whatever commitment to problem gambling funding they send to Texas voters.          

Kohler identifies harms of gambling with non-discretionary income

Rob Kohler is a consultant who’s testified on behalf of the Christian Life Commission, a group affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. He has testified against the proposed gambling legislation at the Texas statehouse as part of a 20-year career opposing gambling expansion. 

However, Kohler’s career began with 12 years working at the Texas Lottery in the industry he now opposes. It gave him a clear-eyed view of what a problem gambler is. 

“If you asked me what would be one of the tell-tale signs of a problem gambler, it would be dipping into money that is not considered your discretionary income,” Kohler said. “So if a person starts dipping into money that they would set aside for next month’s rent or next month’s electric bill, and justifying in their mind that, ‘Well, I can always be late on that bill or I can catch up the next month,’ it’s probably when your gambling puts you in that type of situation.” 

Kohler’s definition incorporates the self-destructive element in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association. It doesn’t dismiss problem gambling as a moral issue or a problem of willpower. He also doesn’t glibly blur the line between gambling addicts and someone whose gambling doesn’t affect their bills but may cause problems at home. 

Census data raises concerns about low-income gamblers

Kohler’s role with the Texas Lottery prepared him for his current role testifying against gambling bills. 

“I produce the same data, I use the same knowledge as when I worked in the industry,” Kohler said. He adds the context of census data that paints a more troubling picture than rosy sales figures. 

A review of 27 studies on problem gambling found that people with low incomes are more likely to have gambling problems than people with higher incomes. Problem gamblers often turn to gambling to “cope with distress they experienced as a child” or to manage current life problems. This can become a vicious cycle where distress leads to gambling with money an individual doesn’t have, leading to greater poverty, more distress, and more gambling.     

“You look at the census data in that community and recognize, ‘Wow, this is an area that’s high in public expense and low in public education,’ and those high sales may not be such a good thing.”

Kohler offered the example of an area where there’s a high level of lottery sales. If that area also has high levels of “SNAP or federal assistance … then basically at the same time (we’re) taking it back from them in the form of lottery proceeds.”

Based on Kohler’s definition of problem gambling, it’s unsurprising to see how reluctant he is to create the opportunity for low-income gamblers to spend stretched budgets on gambling. 

Financial Objections To Expanded Gambling  

Kohler also takes issue with the admitted problem gambling rate from the gambling industry and the gulf between total revenue and tax revenue.

The National Council on Problem Gambling, a non-profit dedicated to addressing gambling problems in the United States, estimates that 1% of the US population qualifies for a severe gambling problem. The American Gaming Association, the US gambling industry’s lobbying group, touts its responsible gambling campaign, acknowledging that some small amount of problem gambling is an inevitable consequence of gambling.

Kohler believes these numbers don’t capture the scope of the problem.

The gulf between gambling revenue and tax revenue is an issue to Kohler, too. In most states that have legalized sports betting, promotional write-offs cut taxable revenue almost in half. In Colorado’s first year of sports betting, sportsbooks’ taxable revenue dropped 62% due to promotional write-offs. 

Bloomberg also reported that sportsbooks in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia wrote off almost half their taxable revenue from promotional write-offs. That’s how Colorado bettors wagered $425 million in Feb. 2023 and Colorado only raked in $1.3 million in tax revenue. 

However, faith is noticeably absent from his opposition. 

“It’s the opposition that tries to say, ‘Well, the folks that are against this, this is a moral argument for them.’ And I will tell you that [the number of] people that I know in the Legislature that are just morally opposed on moral grounds is actually very small,” Kohler said.  

Even though Kohler is hired by a religious organization, the lobbyists and lawmakers he works with have more issues than biblical or moral objections. They share his concerns about increases in problem gambling, the impact of gambling on low-income communities and the costs of the fallout of problem gambling behaviors. 

Griffin Concerned About Uncontrollable Gambling

Mark Griffin is a member of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, a Southern Baptist ministry organization. It’s affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which has passed resolutions opposing gambling since 1890

Griffin was unable to sit for an interview, but he sent two articles and a clip of his anti-gambling testimony

In his writing, Griffin differentiated between recreational gamblers and “addicted gamblers.” His definition of problem gamblers seems to hinge on the self-destructive element of pathological gambling.

His arguments opposing the gambling industry are largely built around gamblers who become addicted to gambling. In his article 10 Reasons Why A Christian Should Not Gamble, his eighth reason is the increase in addiction:

“Gambling, however, encourages a compulsion to a behavior that once a person is ‘hooked’, it becomes uncontrollable. Anywhere predatory gambling is expanded, addiction exponentially explodes,” Griffin wrote. 

Griffin also centers his criticism of gambling around his faith’s interpretation of it. His Feb. 21 testimony before Georgia’s House Higher Education Committee began by citing the most-recent resolution of the Georgia Baptist Convention opposing gambling. It is at least the 22nd anti-gambling resolution from the Georgia Baptist Convention since 1963.

Southern Baptist Biblical Case Against Gambling 

In his own writing, Griffin leans heavily on scripture. He begins his 10 Reasons article with the argument that gambling promotes idolatry:

“As a matter of fact, in Isaiah 65:11 (ESV, NASB, NIV) we have two pagan gods named ‘Fortune’ (Gad) and ‘Destiny’ (Meni). There is no doubt this verse has some relationship to the activity that is involved in gambling. Now, let me ask you are there really any other gods than the Lord? No! Then who are these? I Corinthians 10:19-20, reveals who is looked to, if it is not the Lord God,” Griffin wrote.  

Each of the remaining reasons include at least one biblical verse to support his arguments. He invokes Proverbs 14:31 and Amos 2:6 to support his claim that gambling “exploits the poor and needy.” 

To defend his assertion that “gambling violates the principle of love,” Griffin draws from Chapter 13 of Romans and two different chapters of Matthew. Griffin argues that leading people to gamble, an activity that could be harmful, is unethical. To him, keeping Georgians from engaging in gambling is an act of love and allowing gambling’s expansion is love’s opposite

Common Ground: Secular And Religious Opposition To Gambling  

The heavy presence of scripture masks the point that Kohler makes about assuming every gambling opponent, especially a religious opponent, is only opposed to gambling based on moral grounds.            

While Griffin built biblical and moral cases against gambling, he also voiced concerns about:

  • Impact on low-income communities
  • Encouragement of greed and reliance on “easy” money
  • Increases in crime from pathological gamblers
  • Youth gambling and problem gambling   
  • Soundness of public gambling policy

Strip away the religious language, and Griffin’s article is an outline of the issues Kohler articulated in his PlayTexas interview. It’s a reminder to supporters of legalized gambling that if they brush off their opponents as biblical or moral crusaders, they still have legitimate concerns to address.      

Problem Gambling Inflicts Continuous Harm  

Colloquially, “problem gambling” can be used to describe a range of unhealthy gambling habits. 

Professionally though, there’s a shared meaning that retains the requirement that a gambling habit be harmful to a person’s life to be called “problem gambling.” It’s the common thread among the definitions offered by a problem gambling counselor, an anti-gambling lobbyist and a Southern Baptist. 

Beginning with a shared definition of problem gambling is crucial for crafting a sane gambling policy, whether that policy embraces gambling or prohibits it. If a gambling bill makes it to the ballot, Texas voters will have the final say in how convincing these arguments are. 

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Chris Gerlacher

Christopher Gerlacher is a lead writer for PlayTexas. He is a versatile, experienced writer with a portfolio that ranges from political and legislative pieces to sports and sports betting. Gerlacher is a devout Broncos fan, for better or for worse, living in the foothills of Arvada, Colorado.

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