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March Madness may be fun and games, but it can be 'life-threatening' for some problem gamblers

While the sports betting industry rakes in record-breaking revenue with more and more states legalizing the practice, 20% of U.S. adults with severe gambling problems say they’ve attempted suicide in the past year, a problem gambling director told Fox News.

“The rate of suicidal behavior, self-destructive behavior among people with severe gambling problems is incredibly high,” National Council on Problem Gambling Executive Director Keith Whyte said. “That makes problem gambling a life-threatening disorder, that makes it a national public health issue, if not a national public health emergency.”

The American Gaming Association expects one in four U.S. adults will place a bet on March Madness this year. 

The American Gaming Association expects one in four U.S. adults will place a bet on March Madness this year.  (Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This year, 68 million adults in the U.S. — or 26% of the adult population — are expected to wager around $15.5 billion on the men’s March Madness tournament, according to the American Gaming Association. Sports betting brought in $7.5 billion in gross gaming revenue from 2021 to 2022, a 73% increase year-over-year.

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Total commercial gaming revenue brought in an annual record of $60 billion in 2022, up from the previous record of $53 billion a year earlier, according to the American Gaming Association

“The number of regular sports bettors in the United States has roughly doubled in the past five years,” Whyte told Fox News.

Before a Supreme Court ruling in 2018 struck down an anti-gambling law, Nevada was the only state that allowed legal sports gambling. Since then, 36 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized sports gambling and more states are in the process of reviewing sports betting proposals. 

However, as sports betting adoption has risen, so has the number of gambling help hotline phone calls. 

A Draftkings Sportsbook sign in right field during the Major League Baseball game.

A Draftkings Sportsbook sign in right field during the Major League Baseball game. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Calls to the Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline increased 227% from January 2022 to January 2023, according to data from Ohio for Responsible Gambling. January 2023 was the first month legal sports betting was allowed in the state.

In 2021, the first year sports betting in Virginia was legal, the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling saw a 357% increase in call volume, according to the group’s president, Carolyn Hawley.

An American Gaming Association vice president, Casey Clark, said many calls placed to problem gambling helplines are not gamblers seeking help, but rather customer service calls, prank calls and/or misdials.

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“It’s misleading at best to suggest that the actual volume of calls coming in is a direct correlation of people directly asking for help,” Clark told Fox News. “The real number that you should be looking for are what they call intake calls, which are calls where people are calling and saying, ‘I have a gambling problem, how can I get help?'”

Between 4 and 6 million U.S. adults meet the criteria for mild or moderate gambling problems in a given year, according to data from the National Council on Problem Gambling. And the risk for gambling problems has increased 30% between 2018 and 2021, Whyte told Fox News. 

More than 30 states have legalized sports wagering since a 2018 Supreme Court decision struck down a federal ban on the practice, according to the American Gaming Association.

More than 30 states have legalized sports wagering since a 2018 Supreme Court decision struck down a federal ban on the practice, according to the American Gaming Association. (Ramiro Vargas/Fox News Digital)

Modern sports gambling is wagered “almost entirely” through mobile apps, which poses new risk factors for consumers, according to Whyte. 

“The immediacy of the app, the fact you can bet 24 hours a day on thousands of games around the world, and now in play, you can place hundreds of bets on each game, on each of the thousand games, that’s certainly a risk,” he said. “But the technology also offers protective factors.”

“It’s very easy to set your own limits, to exclude yourself from gambling, to receive reminders of the time and money that you’ve spent gambling,” Whyte continued. “Those are all things that can also easily be done through the app.”

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However, despite efforts to implement tools for those with gambling problems, betting platforms’ marketing on nationally broadcasted sports games and around college campuses and other venues either deliberately or inadvertently promotes gambling in part to an audience that is not of age, Whyte said.

 FanDuel is one of the largest sports betting apps in the U.S.

 FanDuel is one of the largest sports betting apps in the U.S. (Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“The marketing is extremely aggressive,” Whyte told Fox News. “While it may not be intended to reach people under 21 or under 18, it certainly absolutely is reaching them.”

Other forms of gambling have been increasing in popularity as well, Whyte said.

Around 60% of Americans have placed a bet at least once in the past year across all forms of gambling, including on the lottery, at casinos, or on sports betting, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling

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“It’s not untrue to say that we are increasingly a nation of gamblers,” Whyte said. 

To watch the full interview with Whyte, click here

If you or someone you know needs help with a gambling problem, call or text the National Problem Gambling Helpline 800-522-4700.

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