CINCINNATI (WKRC) — Legalized online and live sports gambling starts in Ohio on Jan. 1, and experts say that could also create mental health challenges for the state.
Mental health experts are worried about a possible massive leap in the number of problem gamblers statewide.
University of Cincinnati social work visiting associate professor Gregory Stewart says there are an estimated 250,000 people in the state, currently, with a gambling problem. 16 percent of those addicts are under the age of 18.
He says it is hard to predict how much those numbers will go up with legalized sports betting, especially since gamblers can place wagers on their smartphones.
But the number could be big.
"Ohio being a large state within the United States, we're anticipating a dramatic increase in individuals participating,” Stewart said. “And because of that large participation, a certain percentage of those individuals will experience problems with their gambling."
The University of Cincinnati is one of six organizations statewide to get a grant to train social workers to better understand and help interact with and treat problem gamblers in the coming year.
Ohio is getting 10 percent of online and live sports gambling revenue after winnings are paid in taxes. The state is committing to spend two percent of that to fund treatment and prevention.
Anti-gambling activist Les Bernal says that is not nearly enough, given what he has seen in other states after they launched sports betting.
It's ridiculous,” said Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling. “The state does this to give the appearance that people are protected public officials from both political parties are shielding their eyes from the serious harm that predatory gambling is inflicting on the families of Ohio.
Gambling company executives say they have strong safeguards in place.
Online gamblers can put themselves on "do-not bet" lists if they recognize they have a problem or put betting limits or cooling off periods in place, for example.
Jeff Lowich, vice president of retail operations for FanDuel, which is opening a live sports betting window inside Belterra Park & Casino, says in-person staff are similar to bartenders who look out for someone who has had too much to drink.
If you find one of those red flags, the staff has been trained on how to have those conversations, taking somebody to the side,” Lowich said.
Ohio will be the 31st state to have legalized sports betting starting Sunday. Experts already predict it could be one of the five biggest markets in the country.
UC is hosting a major conference on the mental health impacts of sports betting in about three months, when there might be possible insight into the initial impact.