Despite a statewide decline in those seeking services for problem gambling, local gaming officials and counselors alike acknowledge the ongoing need to assist those battling addictions.
Data recently released by the Iowa Legislative Services Agency showed that 759 clients received services from the Iowa Gambling Treatment Program in fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30. That is down 19.2 percent from the number of clients served in 2008.
The number of “service hours” spent counseling these clients also declined significantly. In fiscal year 2018, those gamblers in Iowa received 13,090 hours of counseling — 36 percent less than in fiscal year 2008.
Q Casino and Hotel CEO Jesus Aviles, however, believes that problem gambling remains an issue worthy of attention.
“I think, as an industry, it is important to embrace the situation and attack the problem,” he said. “We know some people are going to go out of bounds with their gaming. We have to be vigilant and try to observe people’s behavior to see if they are calling out for help.”
Allison Schwab, treatment supervisor for Substance Abuse Services Center in Dubuque, said gambling addiction remains an issue.
The general population often struggles to understand the severity of gambling addiction, according to Schwab. She said the stigma surrounding substance abuse and mental health has been reduced, but it remains strong in cases of gambling problems.
“Many people still have this old-school thinking that, ‘If you don’t have money, you shouldn’t be gambling’,” she said. “This is an actual disorder, and people are struggling with it.”
While gambling addiction remains a problem, Iowa officials have seen a persistent decline in funding to address it.
In fiscal year 2008, the Iowa Department of Public Health received $8.5 million for its gambling treatment fund. In fiscal year 2018, it was $2.5 million.
Iowa Gambling Treatment Program Manager Eric Preuss said the state receives the same cut of casino revenues that it did a decade ago. However, changes to the allocation of this funding mean fewer dollars to address problem gaming.
“We get as creative as we can,” Preuss said. “One of the biggest challenges, with the decreases over the years, is that we have less for health-promotion activities.”
Schwab said gambling treatment does not apply only to gamblers.
The state also tracks its number of “concerned person clients,” such as spouses and children of those who are gambling. Twenty “concerned person clients” received counseling in fiscal year 2018.
“There are generally two different types of advice we offer to (concerned persons),” Schwab said. “First is to help their understanding of the nature of gambling problems and working through myths they may have about that. We also help them understand how to protect themselves financially.”
TRACKING THE PROBLEM
Aviles said there are multiple ways in which casino officials track problem gambling.
Casino marketing materials and ATMs feature contact information for Iowa’s gambling treatment program, which can be reached at 1-800-BETSOFF (1-800-238-7633).
In addition, Aviles noted that supervisors and managers are trained to monitor guest behavior and intervene when signs of a gambling problem are evident. Signs of extreme irritability — such as banging on a table — often are viewed as signs that players cannot afford to lose what they are wagering.
The state of Iowa also maintains a “self-exclusion program,” through which residents can ban themselves from entering the casino floor. Casinos maintain a database of such individuals and deny them entry if they try to come into a casino.
As the gambling landscape in Iowa and the tri-state region changes, officials are keeping their eyes on the threat to problem gamblers.
In Illinois, the number of video gaming terminals has leaped from 13,000 in December 2013 to 31,000 in December 2018.
Meanwhile, Iowa is among multiple states contemplating the legalization of sports betting.
These new avenues could exacerbate challenges for those who struggle with gambling addiction.
“It is going to be another outlet for gamblers,” Schwab said.
At the state level, officials also are monitoring changes.
“We try to stay on top of legislation, and should gambling expand, we are looking at targeted efforts to reduce and mitigate any potential harm that could come to those who are vulnerable bettors,” Preuss said.
Diamond Jo Casino General Manager Wendy Runde did not respond to a request for comment for this story.