More Iowans were gambling and demonstrating symptoms of problem gambling last year than in 2015, according to a report commissioned by the Iowa Department of Public Health released Friday.

“Gambling Attitudes and Behaviors: A 2018 Survey of Adult Iowans” estimates 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.

Both figures have increased since the state assessed the behaviors in 2015. That analysis found that 68.1% of adult Iowans had gambled and 12.6% were classified as “at-risk” of having gambling problems.

Additionally, a related report found that the percentage of problem gamblers who bet on sports already is high, even though the first Iowa casinos won’t roll out legalized sportsbooks until next week.

These statewide figures have sparked concern among local officials tasked with curbing problem gambling and helping those at risk.

“It is always a concern when you see a spike in those numbers,” said Allison Schwab, treatment supervisor for Substance Abuse Services Center in Dubuque.


The report was conducted by the Center for Social and Behavioral Research at University of Northern Iowa. Results were based on more than 1,700 phone interviews conducted during a four-month period beginning in September.

The document lists a wide variety of activities that fit the state’s definition of gambling.

Playing slot machines, participating in an office pool during March Madness and buying a lottery ticket all are considered gambling activities, according to the study.

The state report also outlines multiple symptoms of “problem gambling.” They include being secretive about gambling habits, chasing losses with more gambling, increasing wagers to achieve the desired excitement and jeopardizing relationships or careers because of gambling.

Schwab believes many people still are reluctant to discuss the realities surrounding gambling problems.

“As a society, we’ve come a long way in discussing and understanding many forms of addiction,” she said. “But most people don’t think about gambling (as a kind of addiction). They don’t realize it can become an issue.”


An accompanying report explored the prevalence of sports betting and fantasy sports.

This 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.

Eric Preuss, the IDPH Problem Gambling Treatment and Prevention program manager, noted that such figures were compiled at a time when sports gambling remained illegal in Iowa.

“There may have been some underreporting about (the prevalence) of sports betting because people didn’t want to own up to being involved in an illegal behavior,” he said.

That soon will no longer be the case in Iowa.

State officials last month approved a final set of rules for Iowa’s new law allowing sports betting. Sports betting is slated to go live at noon Thursday, Aug. 15, although Dubuque casinos might take a bit longer to throw their hats in the ring.

Officials with Boyd Gaming, the parent company of Diamond Jo in Dubuque, recently said they aim to have the venue’s sportsbook open by early September. Q Casino and Hotel officials said betting through that facility likely will start in late August or early September.

Officials from Diamond Jo and Q casinos did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.


Schwab said the impending legalization of sports betting has the potential to increase problem gambling in the state.

“It may get more people interested and might open the door for them to become involved in gambling,” she said.

Preuss noted that, unlike many existing forms of gambling, sports betting will be available at Iowans’ fingertips. Those who register in person at a casino will later have the option to place bets on sporting events using an application on their smartphones.

“We need to make sure we are getting the right messages across to people,” Preuss said. “We need to get that message out there about responsible play and responsible gaming.”

With that said, Preuss is unsure how many new people will be coaxed into gambling because of legalized sports betting.

The recent IDPH study notes that 99% of sports bettors and fantasy sports participants also engaged in other types of gambling behaviors, including buying lottery tickets, internet gambling or office pools.

Preuss said the majority of people are able to gamble in a responsible manner.

“People with disposable income may choose to spend $100 on going to a baseball game or a concert or attending the state fair,” he said. “For a lot of Iowans, they have that same view of gambling. It is just important to notice when that kind of behavior begins to cross the line (into problem gambling).”

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