Pennsylvania is well into a new era of expanded gambling, both retail and online. As Pennsylvanians discover increased options and methods for gambling available to them, new resources to help prevent and treat problem gambling have arrived as well as part of the state’s ongoing effort to promote responsible gambling.
Besides the expanded gambling opportunities, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 introduced additional challenges when it came to monitoring problem gambling.
During the early weeks of the pandemic, shutdown orders meant licensed liquor sellers had to close. Some of these establishments were then hit with warnings and even a couple of suspensions after skirting the shutdown order, including by offering their video gaming terminals during a period when they had been prohibited.
Meanwhile, casinos closing presented a different test by increasing risk factors for problem gamblers already susceptible to anxiety, stress and depression. Then, after sports returned in late summer, advocates of responsible gaming renewed their efforts to educate the public about problem gambling.
During 2020, the state added to its wealth of programs and initiatives expressly designed both to prevent problem gambling and to assist those affected. Here’s a look at responsible gambling measures in place now and what could be added going forward.
In PA, responsible gambling starts with having a plan
Want to offer gambling in PA? You’ll need to have a responsible gambling plan in place. It’s the law.
In late 2017, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed legislation significantly expanding gambling in the state. In addition to introducing online gambling, the new law brought many additional ways for Pennsylvanians to gamble. These include:
- adding video gaming terminals in truck stops
- adding gaming tablets in airports
- authorizing 10 new mini-casinos (or “satellite casinos”) around the state
- permitting the online sale of instant games and other online lottery products
- legalizing sports betting
- officially legalizing fantasy sports
The legislation and finalized rules also explicitly included directives to introduce responsible gambling initiatives.
All applicants for gaming licenses must submit a compulsive and problem gambling plan along with their applications. The requirement extends to those applying for slot machine licenses to operate retail establishments. It also applies to those seeking interactive gambling licenses to operate sites online.
Compliance with the plan is also a condition to continue as an operator in the state. When applying to renew, every licensee must submit an annual summary of its compulsive and problem gambling program.
What goes into an effective compulsive and problem gambling plan?
Pennsylvania law identifies several elements operators should include in their plans.
Essentials begin with having the plan’s goals and timetables clearly stated. They also include identifying the individual in charge of implementing and maintaining the plan.
From there the plan must, at a minimum, include the following policies and procedures:
- A commitment to train appropriate employees
- The identification of duties and responsibilities of employees designated to implement the plan
- Acknowledgment of the responsibilities of patrons with regard to responsible gaming
- Procedures for identifying patrons and employees who exhibit signs of compulsive or problem gambling
- Procedures for providing information regarding a variety of treatment services and programs designed to help compulsive and problem gamblers and their family members
Beyond that, the law explicitly stipulates that operators’ plans include many other provisions as well. These include:
- Providing printed material to educate patrons, including posting signs with referral information
- Creating an employee training program to educate them about preventing problem gambling (including a certification process to verify completion)
- Having procedures in place to prevent self-excluded persons from gambling, to exclude intoxicated or otherwise impaired persons from gambling and to prevent underage gambling
Resources, treatment options, self-exclusion programs and more
The Pennsylvania Gambling Control Board (PGCB) offers its own resources to both gambling operators and patrons. Much of it comes via the PGCB’s Office of Compulsive and Problem Gambling (OCPG), which launched a new website in 2020, ResponsiblePlay.pa.gov.
The website includes information designed to help visitors discover if they indeed have a gambling problem. There are also resources to help individuals identify signs of gambling addiction and other problems in loved ones.
The site provides resources for getting help, including the “10 Rules for Responsible Gaming” and other information helping distinguish gambling facts from gambling myths. There are links to Gamblers Anonymous and information about the organization. There are also resources for friends and family members affected by the problem gambling of those close to them, including information and links to GAM-ANON.
The site additionally offers information about the PGCB’s self-exclusion program designed to allow individuals to ban themselves voluntarily from casinos, online gambling sites, video gaming terminals and fantasy sports wagering. Visitors can apply to enter the program straight from the site.
Currently, Pennsylvania’s self-exclusion program enables people to self-exclude from gambling activities for one year, five years or their lifetime.
The state’s efforts don’t stop there. They also extend to a variety of low-cost or free problem gambling treatment options available through the PA Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. As of today, there are more than 75 treatment centers located throughout the state.
PlayPause extends self-exclusion across state lines
Online sites utilize self-exclusion programs as well. For example, recently, GVC Holdings (now Entain) became the first to partner with new self-exclusion technology called PlayPause, developed by nonprofit organization Conscious Gaming. The tool, backed by geolocation company GeoComply, debuted in PA at BetMGM on Dec. 23, 2020.
Anna Sainsbury, a Conscious Gaming trustee and GeoComply chairwoman and co-founder, said of the debut:
“We are thrilled to see our vision for a national self-exclusion tool come to life with Pennsylvania’s PlayPause launch.”
The new RG tool allows an operator to extend self-exclusion (either temporary or permanent) across its gaming apps in all jurisdictions where it is live. With online gambling rolling out in more and more states, this service is key to helping overcome some challenges that arise.
Now, if an individual self-excludes on the BetMGM app in PA, they cannot simply drive across state lines to New Jersey and access the app there. Before PlayPause, there was no way to prevent this.
Elizabeth Lanza, director of the PGCB Office of Compulsive and Problem Gambling, commented:
“By integrating with this solution, the industry and regulators can increase well-being efforts and advance the effectiveness of self-exclusion.”
Other features of the tool include allowing users to customize exclusion, for example, from certain game categories or verticals. It also allows users to monitor their gambling habits.
As part of Entain’s Sustainability Charter, the company has committed to donating about $132 million over the next five years to support RG efforts, including partnering with PlayPause/Conscious Gaming. And earlier this month, GeoComply donated $200,000 to Conscious Gaming to aid in rolling out the PlayPause tool.
A new rehabilitation strategy: Gambling Treatment Diversion Court
On the topic of rehabilitating problem gamblers, still more strategies have been pursued elsewhere in the country. As Pennsylvania considers other ways to ensure responsible gambling, a relatively new idea introduced in Nevada might be worth exploring.
It’s called Gambling Treatment Diversion Court. The court represents a kind of alternative judicial venue patterned after other “specialty” courts such as those focused on rehabilitating individuals charged with drug-related offenses, affected by mental health issues, veterans with special needs and other groups.
Such a court was first introduced in late 2018 in Clark County, Nevada, after being established by District Court Judge Cheryl Moss. The program permits convicted felons to enter a treatment program rather than face incarceration. Before they can take part, a criminal judge must consider them eligible for such alternative sentencing.
The defendants have all pleaded guilty to crimes committed as a consequence of their problem gambling. In most cases, these crimes involve theft or embezzlement. If guilty of crimes involving violence against someone else or sexual offenses, the individual cannot have the case decided in Gambling Treatment Diversion Court.
As part of their agreement, participants must visit the court to check in on a regular basis, submit to drug tests and wear tracking devices, work with mental health professionals and attend meetings of Gamblers Anonymous or other, similar groups, among other requirements.
Gambling treatment courts in additional jurisdictions?
Proponents of the Gambling Treatment Diversion Court hope to set up additional courts elsewhere in Nevada and across the country. In New Jersey, legislation has been drafted proposing adding Gambling Treatment Diversion Courts in the Garden State.
Perhaps Pennsylvania might also consider something similar going forward. In any event, as new establishments begin to open and more online options go live, the need for additional responsible gambling measures and continued vigilance will increase as well.
Lead image credit: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar