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How Virginia Plans to Address Problem Gambling

The skyline of City of Richmond
As Richmond narrows options for potential casino developments, healthcare advocates and residents are questioning how the city intends to invest in services to treat gambling addiction. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

As the City of Richmond narrows down proposals to build a potential casino resort, residents still have questions on how the city intends to address the social costs of gambling.

During a community engagement meeting in early March, attendee Mary Wickham said city leaders should be more concerned for people suffering from gambling addiction.

“I think it’s irrepressible to say we’re going to generate this revenue for the City of Richmond that’s going to benefit our city without saying are we making this money on the backs of people -- who are not just party goers who might pop in every now and then -- but people who are in fact addicted to gambling,” Wickham said.

Wickham and others wanted to know how the city intends to treat problem gambling, also known as gambling disorder. 

Jim Nolan, a city spokesperson, said it’s too early to say which social services Richmond will invest in, but the project requires a plan to mitigate any potential harmful effects to the city and  residents. The plan would also include public education and gambling prevention measures.

The American Psychiatric Association defines gambling disorder as a restless, compulsive urge to gamble. People can develop symptoms similar to alcoholism. Research suggests 1% of the U.S. population suffers from severe gambling addiction.

Virginia has one statewide approach to intervention, run by the Virginia Lottery. According to John Hagerty, public affairs specialist with the organization, they contribute approximately $75,000 annually to the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling.

Those funds go towards a helpline, targeted ads, educational material about problem gambling disorder and training and support for rehabilitation specialists. 

Carolyn Hawley, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University studying counseling and rehabilitation who works with the council, says the legalization of gambling across the state may bring in money, but creates an  obligation to address the harm gaming could cause.

“All the revenues from these casinos, from the skill based machines, they’re all fuelling revenue for the state,” Hawley said. “So if we're going to use that we also have to have something like the Problem Gambling Treatment Fund that we are minimizing harm of these activities and we're providing services for those who may be developing problems.”

The Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Fund was established in 2020 when the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to regulate casino gaming. The state mandates 0.8% of casino gambling tax revenue goes directly to that fund.  Another 0.2% would go to the Children and Families Fund to develop treatment and prevention services around child abuse and neglect.

Convergence Strategy Group, a New Orleans based consultant firm, conducted a market assessment for Richmond’s casino. Depending on which proposal is chosen, a casino could generate around $30 million in local taxes, which would send money to the fund.

The City of Richmond's developer selection process includes evaluating the developers' plans to help mitigate the adverse effects of gambling. One way of doing this, mentioned in the market assessment, is by entering a host agreement which also requests developers create a safe environment to deter crime.

The assessment highlights there’s little precedent for such agreements at the local level. But with the funding from casino gaming at the state level, Hawley says the commonwealth can take a broad approach to minimize the harm associated with gambling addiction and train a base of professionals to treat problem gambling. 

“What’s going to happen with this fund is that we’re going to start developing targeted interventions and education and prevention strategies for Virginians, as well as really create an infrastructure so that individuals can get treatment,” Hawley said.

Another advocate, Robert Cabaniss, agrees with Hawley that funding can dramatically change how the commonwealth treats gambling addiction. Cabaniss is the founder and executive director of Williamsville Wellness, a rehabilitation center for substance use disorder and gambling addiction. 

“It’s not as large a problem as people intended it to be, but when it is a problem it’s devastating,” Cabaniss said.

In 2016 Virginia ranked 40th out of all 50 states in terms of investments towards problem gambling treatment services. Cabaniss says having money to address addiction is equally important as who is spending it and how you spend it.

“It’s something that needs to be addressed, but the state needs to be spending the money so that the people can get help,” Cabaniss said. “The question becomes how much of that is going to be spent and where’s it going to be spent?”

Cabaniss suggests partnering with centers like his to develop a range of social services while Hawley suggests investing in research for how to best treat gambling disorder while building up a roster of clinical experts.  

“We need to research as to what the needs are for Virginians so that we can better target our prevention programs. We need to have research in regards to what type of treatment services work best for individuals,” Hawley said.

Both Hawley and Cabaniss expressed their desire for localities to make further commitments to enhancing social services to treat addiction.

Ultimately Richmonders will decide whether or not the city should continue with it’s casino project when a referendum is put on the ballot in November.

Those struggling with gambling disorder right now can call or text the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling’s toll free helpline at 1-888-532-3500.