Year in Review – NCPG Q&A With Bonus: Executive Director Keith Whyte on Responsible Gaming Progress
The US gambling industry made progress on responsible gaming in 2023, but there’s still a $1 billion funding shortfall. So said Keith Scott Whyte in an interview with Bonus.
Whyte is the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), a nonprofit that fights problem gambling on several fronts.
While it may seem a bit early to do a year in review of legal online gambling’s responsible gaming efforts, the New Hampshire Senate began accepting 2024 bill filings on Sept. 28. For those keeping track of US online casino legalization efforts, that’s the state that came the closest to passing a law before Rhode Island came from behind and became the eighth iGaming state in June.
New Hampshire’s online casino bill died in committee in 2023.
Meanwhile, Kentucky became the 37th legal sports betting jurisdiction. Kentucky online sportsbooks launched on Sept. 28. Not all legal sports betting states have live marketplaces yet, including North Carolina.
Whyte Tells Bonus About Responsible Gaming
Responsible gaming efforts are multifaceted. So Whyte spoke to Bonus yesterday about many subjects, ranging from NCPG’s three-year, $6.2 million grant from the National Football League Foundation (NFLF) that began in 2021 to the American Gaming Association’s (AGA) new sports betting guidelines.
Whyte, who was AGA’s research director until 1998, seems to agree with the March revisions in the AGA’s Responsible Marketing Code for Sports Wagering.
However, Bonus readers should judge for themselves.
The Bonus questions are in bold.
Whyte’s answers are below.
What should Bonus readers know about what NCPG did in 2023?
The most important thing for Bonus readers to know about NCPG in 2023 is, I think … that we fully realized our partnership with the NFL. And that impacted three things.
So 2023 was the first full year of having 1 (800)-GAMBLER as the national helpline number, 2023 was the year that we saw some of the biggest results from the NFL’s advertising in support of responsibleplay.org, and 2023 was the year that we started getting the initial evaluations from our the first round of the … Youth Gambling Prevention Agility Grants.
So those are the three major prongs, if you will, of the of the NFL funding. But 2022 was mainly getting everything up to speed right? And it was all it was all new.
So … the most exciting thing for Bonus readers to know about us in 2023 is that these three programs are going to have transformational impacts for years, if not decades to come. And 2023 was the first time that we started to see those initial impacts.
Was 2023 when the public cared about iGaming RG, PG, and addiction?
I think that’s a great question. And I would say the answer is “yes.”
I think that we’ve been talking about online gambling and problems, you know well, before 2018. But 2018 was when the states started to expand into online gambling, and especially online sports betting. And by 2023, you’re starting to see a lot more public awareness … of the downside of gambling problems.
So yes. … I do think that’s that’s true. That’s absolutely true. …
The reason we got more attention is, one, the the vast amount of advertising which now touches probably every American in a way that gambling advertising has never touched them before. And again, it’s mainly driven by sports betting. And then … the New York Times did a very influential series. A lot of other mainstream outlets kind of started to follow them. And … efforts of the National Council [on Problem Gambling] to try and raise public awareness in a positive way. We’re also starting to have an impact. So I think that’s part of the why. And I do suspect, five years into this expansion, [that] more Americans are starting to know someone who they think is … gambling a little bit too much.
Is some of this public outcry about gambling ads NIMBYish?
I think a ton of it’s NIMBY. …
Gambling’s always been here. It’s always been part of human nature. But when you see gambling commercials now during the Super Bowl, when you see it now saturate not just sports coverage, but it’s in the paper. It’s … in that mainstream media. We always knew where to look for it, but it was more niche. And now, I think it’s because especially [of] broadcast advertising, it hits states where it’s only been very recently legalized, or where maybe even a certain form of sports betting isn’t legal. So Utah and Hawaii are getting the same ads that we all see, and I think that’s part of that surprise. …
Is that viewership in Hawaii and Utah due to national ads?
… It’s, what, 33 states now? So the people in the 17 States that don’t have legalized gambling are still being bombarded by gambling ads.
Not that they’re not targeted to them. It’s just that if they see there’s social media, or especially in broadcast television … broadcast advertising, broadcast radio. … You can’t geo-target that … So it’s reaching a lot of people where sports betting is not legal. … That’s a little discordant, I think. Or it creates some of that attention.
Was 2023 the Year of Responsible Gambling?
The general public became more aware.
So was 2023 the year of responsible gambling? Not yet, because there’s still a number of companies, a number of states that are still doing little or nothing on responsible gambling. So there is still a mindset within the gambling industry and government to do as little as possible. and only only enough to comply with the law.
I think, in the majority of states and the majority of gambling operators, they’re moved beyond just compliance. But there’s still a significant minority [of] states and operators that do as little as they can.
And so I don’t think it’ll be the year of RG until we raise that floor.
The ceiling has never been higher. But the floor is still where it was pre-2018. And that’s that’s still a problem for us.
What was accomplished in 2023?
We saw a number of operators really go above and beyond. … Like, you know, Caesars investing millions and millions of dollars to harmonize their self-exclusion system so that anybody that excludes in one property in one state is automatically excluded from all Caesars properties nationwide. And that was an enormous technological achievement — to have all these different systems all talk to each other. …
We saw some really bold announcements by FanDuel, for example, during their first Play Well Day. … They’ve made some enormous commitments.
So I think there was a lot that was accomplished at the top of the market.
What failed, again, was moving that floor. Because while Colorado updated their regulations in 2023, DC cut all their problem gambling funding. So you still have … a few irresponsible operators. You have a few irresponsible states. And that has kept that floor very, very low.
What remains to be done?
It’s really one thing, I guess. … To raise that floor so that the operators … doing the least [are] at least getting closer to the people at the top of the market.
And the same thing with states. You know, we need to leverage those states with weak regulation or no public funding to catch up to their brethren, either in per capita or in total amounts.
There’s a couple of ways to measure, but it is still the case that there are seven states that have no public problem gambling funding. And DC went reverse. … [DC] had public funding, and they got rid of it in 2023.
So … it’s a tale of people that are leading and that are that are innovating in responsible gambling both on the state level and the company level. And then there are people that are sort of fighting to do as little as possible.
Both on the … government level … and companies that refuse to train their employees, that only grudgingly post the helpline number, that don’t provide any support for advocates like us, that don’t get third-party assessments.
So there’s there’s a lot of ways to measure that.
Should online gamblers think of RG, PG, and addiction differently?
… It’s one of the biggest opportunities in the field right now is to help the public — and especially gamblers, and especially online gamblers — understand that these are tools that everyone should use.
And a big part of that is the framing, right?
… We know most gamblers think responsible gambling tools are only for people with problems. And so the vast majority of online gamblers tend not to use them because they don’tthink they have a problem. And they don’t.
So we need to reframe it.
Maybe it’s called “safer play” or “positive play.” …
We’re close. There’s a lot of people that are looking at reframing, renaming these concepts. So it becomes much more like using a seatbelt. Yes, there are laws about seatbelt use, but most people use a seat belt, not because they think they are crazy drivers, but they realize it helps protect them from the negative consequences if there is an accident. No one sets out to have an accident, but most people wear their seat belt, because “in case.” And they don’t think about it as “I’m somehow limiting my freedom,” or “I’m restricting my lifestyle by wearing a seatbelt.” It’s something you do, because there’s risk there.
Everybody should wear a seatbelt. Everybody should set limits, even if you’re [a] completely recreational player. And you’re never going to get anywhere near $5 a day spent. So what does it hurt you to set a limit for $25?
But most people don’t set limits. Because if they hear about responsibility, they think it’s for someone with a problem. And quite frankly, most operators never publicize their limit-setting tools. … There’s only very limited incentivizing of responsible tools, or whatever it is we’re going to call it.
… We give just outrageous amounts of bonuses, right? I’ve never seen a bonus program that says, “Hey, here’s an extra $5 if you set your limits.” “Here’s an extra $10 in site credit if you watch this 30-second video.
… The industry knows so much about .. [the] targeted bonus … To spend a fraction of that money, to spend a tiny bit of that expertise in encouraging your players to be sustainable, encouraging your players to stay with your site because you care, you want them to have a good, positive experience … There’s a lot of ways to frame responsible gambling in a pro-player way. In a way that builds their trust and confidence in the site. But … the industry is doing. I think frankly, a pretty terrible job of that.
So right now, most responsible gambling is framed as compliance. It’s framed as negative. It’s framed as, “for people with a gambling problem.” But it should be just the opposite … voluntary … fun. And you should be rewarded.
Because … you can tell what most sites care about is revenue. And that’s because that’s where their marketing spend is driving. And that’s fair. But … if they really did embrace a culture [of] responsible gambling, they would spend some of that marketing and frankly incentivize players to use their tools to play responsibly. And that’s one way, quite frankly, to increase lifetime value, discourage, churn, discourage bonus abuse — by spending money to … recruit or retain safer, longer-term sustainable players.
How well do months dedicated to RG and PG work for awareness?
I think they are important, and we support them because it provides an opportunity for everyone to celebrate what you should be doing all year round. And we’re so we’re starting to see a shift in the industry.
In 2023, we saw more and more significant announcements of industry initiatives around responsible gambling than ever before, and that was great. And many of these initiatives represented … a long runway. … They didn’t just start it in September.
… Caesars, for example, they announced their self-exclusion [program] during September. But they spent months and months and months working on it.
So I think it’s I think it’s important. I think it also provides an opportunity for general public awareness. So the two months … we could highlight a lot of the work that’s been done. And I think that’s always great. It’s appropriate to celebrate this stuff. And then there’s also an external-facing thing with these two months, where it gives us the opportunity to try and message the general public. So it’s like breast cancer awareness. … Everybody should be supporting that year-round, but when you have a special week or a special month, it provides an opportunity for the general public to get in on that message. …
Does lawmaker outreach help?
It does, because even lawmakers who want to do the right thing often so poorly understand gambling, and none of them have expertise in problem gambling, that they’re apt to do things that are either performative or are not going to be effective. And so it’s a critical part of what we do as advocates to reach out to lawmakers and help them find solutions that are actually going to help reduce harm from gambling problems. …
Many legislators only hear from either the industry and pro-gambling forces or anti-gambling forces. And so we provide a vital service by helping them find pragmatic solutions on … responsible gambling issues that are not biased towards one side or the other. And you know, because so many legislators have so little information around this that legislative agency is critical for us.
Are PG efforts getting enough funding in legal online gambling states?
No, [but] it’s improving. But yeah, still no.
And we have said for a long time, for decades, that what we’d be looking for on a state level is the equivalent of 1% of the state’s total gambling revenue. You know, we think 1% of their lottery, 1% of casinos, 1% … And in most states, we’re still far, far below that. So we’ve been making progress.
In 2022, the amount of public funding we were able to identify was $104 million. And again, that’s very unevenly distributed. …
Across [the] United States, I think the average is 32 cents per capita, which is clearly inadequate. If you took our 1% target and applied it to the estimated annual revenue from gambling, which is probably in 2022, about $100 billion … So there’s about a billion-dollar gap. And that gap may be getting worse as gambling revenue really, really increases across the United States.
Public funding [on responsible gaming] is not keeping pace. So in real dollar terms, we’re probably falling further behind, even though there’s more public spending. That increase is nowhere near matching [the] increase in revenue.
Should federal taxes fund responsible gaming efforts?
The federal government could do some positive things, but many of the big daily fantasy operators still aren’t paying the sports betting excise tax. They’re appealing a very clear IRS determination … That’s a big issue.
I know that there has been discussion in Congress about legislation to prohibit colleges who receive federal funding for research, or for whatever, from developing partnerships with sportsbooks. I think the industry walked those back in in the face of a lot of scrutiny.
… In 2023, we’re building support for the Gambling Research Investment and Treatment Act, the GRIT Act, which would take half of the sports betting excise tax and dedicate that revenue to national-level problem [gambling] family research and state-level prevention and treatment services, right? So it’d be the first-ever federal funding.
… This would not raise the sports betting excise tax. It would just take a portion of the existing federal tax revenue and dedicate it to HHS for national-level research and state-level problem gambling services. So that’s a positive area that the federal government [could impact]. Because right now, states are paying 100% of that burden for prop gambling. …
[The GRIT Act is] going to provide organizations like us and everybody at the state level with more support to minimize harm. And that is a net positive for gambling operators and state government. So everybody benefits if the federal government does their part in a positive way.
Which states need immediate RG, PG, and addiction attention?
Well, the seven who do nothing.
… Texas, being, of course, the biggest, [is] having all sorts of issues. And DC, which affirmatively decided to eliminate their entire problem gambling budget. … It leaves people in [the] district without — just flat-out.
Should states have PG programs before legalizing online casino gambling?
Yes. And one of the big reasons is that it can take years. It can take many years to stand up a program, to get people trained, and to infuse problem gambling in the existing health system. And to build out that full network of services. …
The other reason why it’s so important to have prominent programs in place before expansion is that if you’re in a state like Virginia … For 30 years, anybody who called the state health agency for help with gambling problems was told, “The state of Virginia does not provide services for people with gambling problems. We do not do this.”
And so now, all of a sudden, once sports spending was legalized in Virginia … the state got a couple of million dollars [to] start providing services. But they have to unwind 30 years of prominently telling the public, “don’t come here if you have a gambling problem.” And it may take another decade or so before everybody in the state of Virginia understands that all of a sudden, now. state government is in the business of helping them. …
It’s going to take years to stand up that system, and there might well be a lot of casualties, a lot of preventable casualties in the gap between.
If gambling’s going to expand, it’s going to start almost instantly. But if the health services take three to five years to get put in place, if there’s no safety net there for three to five years, you can really burn out a lot of people.
Did industry and regulatory changes to marketing and ads help?
I do think there’s been progress on the the industry and regulatory changes. That has been positive. The stronger we make these codes, the more awareness states have of best practices in other states, the more we’ll get to voluntary national harmonization. Because there’s never going to be a national gambling law. I don’t think so. Each State sets its own regulations.
But I do think you’re seeing states start to compare. And a lot of people look to New Jersey and Ohio, and they ask a lot of questions.
- “Why don’t we have similar responsible gambling regulations?”
- “Why are our standards so low?”
- “Why is Ohio doing this? And New Jersey is doing that but we’re not?”
And so I do think those changes are going to make a difference … and it’s great. I mean, I’m certainly critical of the self-enforcing nature of the AGA’s guidelines, for example. But when the AGA itself says, “Here, this should be the minimum standard.” It’s very hard for operators to say, “Oh, no. That’s that’s too high of a standard.”
When your own trade association says, “sports [betting’s gambling age should] be 21,” I think it makes it a little bit harder to say, “Well, we’ll take play at 18.” … So I do think it’s it’s going definitely [going] in the right direction. …
Is there a clear difference between legal and illegal sites?
There’s still Americans still spend a lot of money with illegal operators. And That’s definitely a public policy concern.
… One of the industry’s key talking points is that illegal operators don’t have responsible gambling protections. But that argument is severely undercut by the fact that in many states, legal operators are not required to provide adequate, responsible gambling protections, and so they don’t. So if the industry’s argument is, “you should only gamble with the legal, regulated operators because they provide good consumer protections,” that’s actually not true. Because many of them in the United States don’t, because they’re not required to.
So the industry could do itself a huge favor. It could make the contrast between legal, regulated, and illegal operators so much sharper, distinct. … It would provide such a policy advantage.
If every operator in the United States met high standards, if every state raised their responsibility regulations and clearly distinguished the good consumer protections Americans should have [against] the poor consumer protections that offshore operators provide. But until the industry really takes a hard look at itself … Don’t just hang your hat on what the leading operators do. You’ve got to hang your hat on what the lowest, least regulated gambling company does. … That’s the floor. And until that floor raises significantly, they don’t have much of an argument … on [the] responsible gambling side of distinguishing between illegal and legal operators.
What determines responsible gaming funding needs?
In every state, what we would say is, “We acknowledge that 1% of revenue figure is arbitrary.” So every state should, as a matter of policy, develop a statewide needs assessment. … The target should be that every citizen of your of your state has problem gambling prevention and treatment resources that are available, affordable, and accessible, right?
So available — they’re distributed. …
Affordable is obvious, because most people [with] gambling problems don’t have money and accessible means. … You’ve got online options … You [don’t] have to drive 10 hours for it.
And then working back from that goal. What would it take to make problem gambling prevention treatment services available, affordable, accessible in DC, Texas, Kentucky, Ohio … each state? Because that’s the way we look at things like alcohol and opioids, cancer, diabetes. And, to my knowledge, only Oregon and Massachusetts … Ohio soon … have really constructed comprehensive statewide assessments.
… There’s not going to be a magic formula that you can take and plug in, state by state, but at least it’ll get us part of the way. Each state still going to have [work] to do. It’s it’s work.
How did 1 (800)-GAMBLER ad outreach change in 2023?
We did introduce our new brand standards. And we think roughly half the country now allows the use of 1 (800) GAMBLER … in advertising. And so and I think the more states that allow operators to use 1 (800)-GAMBLER, the more of a snowball effect you’re going to see. So I think that was the big change in 2023. …
Must suicide prevention programs be linked to 1 (800) GAMBLER?
It’s always been. There is still a national suicide hotline. But … our standards have always required that helpline staff be trained on how to deal with suicidal callers. …
There’s a lot more effort to share between these groups. So it’s that’s been positive.
Are problem gamblers more likely to commit suicide than other addicts?
People with gambling problems have much higher rates of suicidal behavior than many of the other addictions. …
But I think the evidence is a lot clearer if you look at people’s severe gambling problems. Their rate of suicidal behavior is far higher than other addictive disorders. So yeah, not every person with a gambling problem. But if you just look at people’s severe problems, I think it is fair to say they are more likely to commit suicide than people with other addictions. …
What research priority do you have about RG and PG?
Oh, gosh! So much …
By the end of 2023, or in early 2024, we will be able to launch the third edition of our “NGAGE” survey. [That’s] the only national survey that’s looking at gambling. Attitudes and gambling behavior… We did the first edition in 2018 to set a baseline, did a smaller sample in 2021. And we hope to do the full 28,000-person sample. So that’s our biggest research priority because that’s the only way you have to have three points on a line before you can see a trend. Because some of the increases we saw in 2021 may have just [been] the pandemic, may [have been] a lot of things.
… “NGAGE 3,” we’re calling it. That will … have 500 respondents per state. So that’s going to give a state-level change since 2018. … And I think that’s critical to understand where the risk is shifting. We think the risk is shifting higher. We think it’s shifting mainly to young male online sports betters. But … until we do the survey, we don’t know.
So that’s [the] No. 1 research priority.
[The] second research priority, I would say that we already talked about a little bit, is reframing responsible gambling into something that resonates more with gamblers. To help them engage with these tools. Practice safer play, make more informed decisions. … So I think that’s that’s probably coming to the fore because we’ve got more and more opportunities, more and more government, more and more gambling operators that are interested in responsible gambling. But we don’t want to lose that momentum just because of a name, or just because it of the the connotations that this name has. So … we don’t know what the right answer for the United States is going to be. But that is research that I think will probably that will probably be a priority next year.
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