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The Dark Side

The Financial Times this week published an investigation into “the dark side of the US sports betting boom”.

The article is packed with rich data on the sector’s growth since the repeal of PASPA in 2018, and details how the US betting sector has transformed at breakneck speed.

While prior to 2018 punters would need to go to one of a select few physical locations to place bets on sports, today the vertical is readily available to the majority of the US population.

While that spells good news for companies in the sector and state budgets alike, the proliferation of sports betting across the US has also brought about its fair share of drawbacks.

The article tells the story of Dylan, for example, a 22-year old trainee lawyer whose gambling habit started with a $5 promo deal on DraftKings.

After winning $300 on the promotion and quadrupling those winnings playing online blackjack, “he was hooked,” the article says.

Dylan soon found himself maxing out four credit cards to fund increasingly risky bets, sometimes wagering as much as $5,000, “on everything from obscure tennis fixtures in China to Venezuelan women’s volleyball matches.”

Dylan eventually came clean to his family about his gambling habit, which saw him borrow and stake more than $50,000 over the course of a year.

The FT, in turn, used the case to illustrate the inherent risks of the rapidly growing online gambling industry in the US.

Since PASPA was overturned in 2018, Americans have wagered some $245bn on sports, the piece says, as problem gambling statistics have quickly become more and more alarming.

A New Jersey survey showed, for example, that 6% of the state’s residents were problem gamblers and as many as 20% exhibited signs of problematic play.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, 36.7% of online bettors surveyed admitted to observing at least one problematic element to their gambling last year.

The solution to problems like these is far from simple, but the piece does offer up a range of different insights into how to tackle the issue.

Readers are encouraged to view the full article, which has been widely shared among industry stakeholders this week.

What a trip

Sticking with the theme of problem gambling but now turning our focus to treatment, The Mirror this week put out a report on an upcoming world-first in the UK.

A team of British scientists is currently preparing to run a clinical trial using psilocybin – the psychoactive chemical found in magic mushrooms – to tream gambling addiction.

The government-funded study is set to offer the drug to patients from October, with a view to developing a new kind of addiction treatment that could later be made available through the Naitonal Health Service.

Among the top neuropharamacologists who make up the team of scientists is David Nutt, a former so-called ‘drug tsar’ in the UK, who previously courted controversy with claims such as that horse riding is a significantly more dangerous ‘addiction’ than the use of ecstasy.

“Nobody with a gambling addiction has ever been dosed with psychedelic therapy in a clinical trial so it really is quite a pioneering move,” said Rayyan Zafar, another scientist who is leading the new study.

“We’re super excited. We’ve been wanting to do this work for quite a while,” he added.

In the trial’s early stages, work will focus on just five initial patients, before being rolled out to others after the first set of tests.

Psilocybin has previously been used for the treatment of addictions such as tobacco and drugs, and has been proven to help patients, The Mirror said.

Neurologically, gambling addiction works in a similar way to substance addiction, Zafar said, explaining why psychedelic therapy may have a similar positive impact for those affected.

“Historically with psychedelic research in the UK there’s been very little institutional or government-backed funding so [the trial] is a really positive sign,” Zafar added. 

“Maybe it’s a sign times are changing. It’s becoming more of a priority area and it’s no longer a fringe science.”

Settle down

Now to the Racing Post, which this week featured an article on UK gambling regulation from Dan Waugh of Regulus Partners.

In it, Waugh argues that the Gambling Commission “needs to sort out [the] voluntary settlements mess” currently taking place in the UK.

The regulator “recently appears to have developed a phobia against enforcing its own rules, at least where the use of so-called ‘voluntary settlements’ are concerned,” he writes.

Voluntary settlements are paid by gambling firms in lieu of financial penalties, Waugh explains, with the proceeds being used to support gambling harm prevention initiatives.

One such initative attracted Waugh’s ire, however, as he pointed to a “mathematically illiterate” report, funded by Gambling commission settlements, produced by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and based on what he calls “methodological balderdash.”

While funds secured through Gambling Commission settlements should not be used for political or lobbying efforts, he adds, the report “appears to be a thoroughly political project, aimed at persuading the government to adopt restrictionist policies as part of its Gambling Act review,” Waugh says.

“If this is the case then it is in breach of the rules concerning the use of voluntary settlement funds.”

Worst of all, Waugh points out, “although rules appear to have been broken, there is absolutely no recourse to sanction and no mechanism for retrieving the misspent funds.”

In similar fashion, several “overtly anti-gambling projects” also appear to have received public money and approval from the Gambling Commission to carry out their work, he said.

“The system of voluntary settlements is a mess – with funds that could be used to support those with a gambling disorder diverted to anti-gambling activism,” Waugh concludes. 

“The mess is not entirely the commission’s fault but the absence of any acknowledgement that an issue even exists is troubling.”

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