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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    What are the odds for problem gamblers online?

    A student who borrows heavily to finance a college education may emerge with a debt load that will take years to pay off, but at least the new graduate has a degree to show for it. Even those who don't finish their courses right away are better prepared and more employable than if they had never started.

    No such luck for the student who spends their own or their parents' savings, or maxes out one or more credit cards in a losing streak of online sports betting. They get nothing for something.

    Growth in the numbers of gamblers of all ages has been exponential since the start of legal online gaming and sports betting in the state. Connecticut is still in its rookie year in the big leagues of legalized sports betting, but the volume of calls to the state's problem gambling hotline has stunned even the experts. From October through January, calls, texts and internet chat connections to the hotline went up 122%.

    College football, the Super Bowl and March Madness have moved offstage but the Major League Baseball season is now open, and professional basketball and hockey have many weeks left to play. There is no letup in the temptation, and no longer any built-in pause to decide not to go somewhere to place a bet. More than 100 million Americans can place a legal wager where they live.

    The obvious way to deter problem gambling would have been not to expand it beyond the tribal casinos and Connecticut Lottery outlets to off-site wagering, were it not for the fact that some 30 states were already offering access and collecting their share of the revenues. Constant advertising during televised games ensures that no one can forget they are invited to play. Some of the offers are so specific and short-lived that it is like betting which flower the butterfly will land on first.

    It will come too late for those who have lost unaffordable sums, but the legislature's Committee on Public Safety and Security in late March favorably reported on a bill entitled "An Act Concerning Studies of the Effect of Legalized Gambling in the State." It calls for the first study of the effect of legalized gambling in 14 years to be completed by Jan. 1, 2023. Studies are supposed to have been done at least every 10 years.

    Following testimony from officials in the state Department of Consumer Protection that the time frame is too short for a "robust" study, the committee has nevertheless kept the deadline while acknowledging that "The department doesn't have the staffing or expertise to conduct this study within existing resources and will have to hire an outside consultant." Whether we can expect to see the results next January is unpredictable.

    The projected cost after the department conducts a Request for Proposals process and chooses a vendor is $1 million to $1.25 million. The final cost will be dependent on the responses and the contract. By comparison, the 2008 casino study overseen by the Division of Special Revenue cost $685,000 for consultant services.

    State Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague, representing the 19th district, is the Senate chairperson of the public safety committee. Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun are in the 19th district, and both they and Connecticut Lottery officials have indicated they will fully cooperate with the study.

    It makes no difference that the percentage of gamblers who become addicted has historically been fairly low; everywhere-access betting is a whole new game. The data must be the latest and most comprehensive. Difficult questions that didn't even apply 14 years ago must be included. What is the effect on student athletes? Does the pressure to throw a game increase when fellow students are betting on it?

    While studies can be shelved, there seems to be a compelling public concern about online gaming and sports betting, as there should be. Too many people are paying a steep price. The General Assembly should be prepared to pass and the governor to sign a final version of this bill.

    And when the answers come in, state officials should expect to hear of a need for greater regulation and for prevention programs that the hotline is not designed to meet. A million-dollar study is just the first step. 

    The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.