One week ago, the Iowa Department of Public Health released data showing problem gambling in the state is on the rise.
One day ago, the odds of reversing that trend got worse.
Sports betting is now legal in Iowa, soon to be available through a casino near you. Dubuque’s Diamond Jo Casino and Q Casino will be taking bets soon — no later than the kickoff of the National Football League season.
In many ways, that’s good for Iowa. It levels a wildly uneven playing field which for decades allowed a few places, notably Las Vegas and Atlantic City, to reap the revenue of sports betting. It should help local casinos, which have struggled to sustain revenues in the face of increased competition, and that’s good for local governments and community nonprofits.
However, this news is not entirely good. In the rush to embrace sports gambling, state officials apparently have not considered the potential impact of gambling addiction.
A 2018 survey shows that more than 1.7 million adult Iowans — or 73.8% of the adult population — gambled during the past 12 months. About 315,000, or 13.6%, experienced some symptoms of problem gambling. That’s up from a survey in 2015, when the percentage of adults who had gambled was about 68%, with 12.6% considered “at-risk” of having gambling problems.
And there’s one more thing the survey showed: Gamblers who bet on sports are even more prone to having a problem. The study found that 9% of adult Iowans either bet on sports or play fantasy sports. Nearly a quarter of that group — 23% — were classified as at-risk gamblers. When this study was conducted, sports gambling wasn’t legal in Iowa. So the numbers likely skew higher than people were willing to admit and might well grow now that it’s legal.
Helping a loved one who battles gambling addiction ward off temptation is particularly difficult because of the way sports betting works. Once a bettor has registered at a casino, he or she is free to bet on all sorts of games on mobile devices from the comfort of an armchair. When it can be done in privacy, gambling problems can be harder to detect and prevent.
Unfortunately, while the state projects its share of the sports betting proceeds to be a modest $2.5 million to $4 million a year, it still should have earmarked some of that amount toward gambling assistance programs, which are virtually assured of having more clientele due to sports betting. Lawmakers and the governor should fix this mistake in their next budget.
A new day has dawned in Iowa, one where sports betting is legal. While that will likely mean positive financial news for casinos and communities, state leaders must be prepared to assess and address a likely uptick in gambling addiction.