Ismail Vali interviews Keith S. Whyte, Executive Director, National Council on Problem Gambling (USA)
EI: Can you share some background on your career with readers and elaborate on your role at the National Council on Problem Gambling?
I became Executive Director of NCPG in 1998, after three years at the American Gaming Association. NCPG is an NGO that is neutral on legalised gambling. We advocate for programmes and services to help people with gambling problems. NCPG members include 35 state affiliate chapters, almost 100 corporate members—from casinos to lotteries, treatment centres to regulatory agencies, sports leagues to state health departments—and individual counsellors, researchers and recovering gamblers.
EI: How have you found the COVID-19 period, so far, and how is it affecting the work of the NCPG and those it seeks to assist?
The coronavirus disproportionately affects individuals with gambling problems. Problem gamblers already have poorer physical and mental health, and limited access to healthcare in America means they face even greater barriers to treatment. People with gambling problems are much more likely to be homeless or incarcerated, which can expose people to environments where they are in close contact with others who might also be at higher risk for infections. Self-quarantine and other vital public health measures also disrupt access to counselling, self-help group meetings and other support needed by people with gambling addiction. COVID-related anxiety, depression and social isolation plus job loss and economic pressures are all risk factors for gambling addiction.
EI: How have you handled the impact of the new normal upon the team at the NCPG?
The pandemic has led to significant changes and cuts at NCPG. However, it also provides an opportunity for innovation as we shift conferences and training online and explore additional ways to reimagine the problem gambling safety net and our responsible gambling services.
EI: Can you tell readers how the NCPG interacts with gaming regulators and operators? Is it difficult to balance the differing goals of each whilst effectively helping those at risk of gambling-related harm?
We engage with operators, vendors and regulators in three interconnected ways. First, many of the key stakeholders in each of these groups are members of the NCPG and serve on our Board of Directors and committees, helping to sustain and lead NCPG along with our other members. Second, we provide vital problem gambling safety net and responsible gambling employee training and certification services to these organisations, with members receiving a significant discount. Finally, as advocates, we work with them where we have areas of mutual interest, such as discouraging illegal gambling, and speak out publicly when they need to do more to minimise harm. With almost 50 years of experience, independence and credibility on gambling issues, we are a trusted partner and valuable resource because we don’t accept any restrictions on contributions and speak freely and criticise even our members publicly. Our most important role is as advocates for programmes and services to help problem gamblers and their families and all our efforts are focused on that goal.
EI: What are the major hurdles obstructing the achievement of the National Council on Problem Gambling’s core goals?
Our core goals are to increase public awareness of problem gambling, increase accessibility and quality of problem gambling and responsible gambling services, and provide and support advocacy at state and federal level.
Our principles are:
The decision to gamble is an individual choice that should be made on an informed basis.
Problem gambling is a national public health issue that negatively affects individuals, families, businesses and communities throughout the country. Programmes to reduce the harm from gambling addiction have a positive impact on individuals, families, communities and society.
Gambling problems encompass more than a clinical diagnosis of a gambling disorder. They can affect people whose gambling is just beginning to move beyond simple recreation, those on the path to recovery, and many points in between.
The most ethical and effective way to address problem gambling is through comprehensive prevention, education, treatment, enforcement, research, responsible gambling and recovery programmes.
Problem gambling services must be available and accessible to all in need, and affordable.
Governments have a responsibility to provide adequate funding for programmes to mitigate the costs of gambling addiction.
Gambling operators, suppliers, and regulators play a critical role in successfully addressing problem gambling.
Our mission can only be accomplished through the collaborative action of a broad range of people and organisations.
Obstacles are that many people still misunderstand gambling addiction as a moral weakness rather than a medical disorder. Some gambling operators still shirk responsibility and minimise responsible gambling, and several states, as well as the Federal government, refuse to provide funding for problem gambling programmes.
EI: Which markets are you most involved with? What similarities and differences do they present? Can you discuss a challenge common to them all and solutions that helped you overcome it?
We work with operators and vendors across all verticals and jurisdictions. One of the biggest challenges is that there are hundreds of jurisdictions (when you include tribal sovereign governments) with different responsible gambling regulations and standards. They range from literally nothing in some jurisdictions to comprehensive public health systems in states like Massachusetts and Oregon. NCPG does provide national solutions like our Helpline that works across the entire US, allowing gamblers to make one call for help, no matter when or where they see the number. But not all states have adopted the National Number, forcing operators to promote different numbers at different properties and confusing customers who may be seeking help. Our national responsible gambling certification programmes like the lottery Responsible Gambling Verification (RGV) or the Internet Compliance Assessment Program (iCAP) meet or exceed the responsible gambling standards at the state or local level.
EI: Many look to the more mature European markets for learning and insight across responsible gaming approaches. Would you say the NCPG has been influenced by any particular European approach, or do you feel the USA requires a local-first focus based on particular state and federal challenges?
In general, the responsible gambling standard in European markets far exceeds that of most states in the US, and so we encourage international companies to voluntarily keep their high standards rather than “dumbing down” their responsible gambling programmes to the lowest common denominator. In particular, the UKGC requirement to affirmatively use player data to assess markers of possible gambling harm would revolutionise US responsible gambling programmes. Securing large scale and long-term funding commitments as made by the “Big 5” companies in the UK would allow the stabilisation and sustainability of our safety net services that currently are far too reliant on annual, and as proven during the current pandemic, undependable voluntary contributions.
EI: Do you perceive a threat from the black market to the legal, licensed US State marketplaces? Does the black market present a problem for player protection?
While it is true that most black market sites do not provide player protection; the assumption that legalised and regulated gambling do provide player protection, is faulty. This is particularly true if you expand the focus to lottery and charitable verticals, as well as social casino, fantasy sports and other “arguably not legalised gambling” games operated by licensed and regulated gambling companies. We have to judge overall player protection arguments in the debate over legalised gambling by the lowest common denominator of the least responsible operators in the loosest US jurisdictions. And that is a very, very low bar, and sad to say, but scarcely better than some black market operators. Until regulators and the industry hold their peers to a higher level, the “player protection” gambit will be a big stretch.
EI: What is the most important challenge facing your mission over this year?
The rush to expand gambling without safeguards, cut problem gambling programmes and/or relax regulations to claw back “lost” revenue during the pandemic. This “irresponsible gambling” is a strategy that may lead to increased short term revenue at the expense of a long-term increase in social costs, decrease in public support and perhaps even the kinds of backlash we are watching in real time in the UK and Europe. It is important to note there are fairly easy and proven ways to expand gambling, balance budgets and implement progressive regulations that minimise harm while maximising revenue. For example, we call on states that legalise a new form of gambling to dedicate the equivalent of 1% of revenue to prevent and treat associated gambling problems. This is new revenue and we know every dollar spent on these programmes saves at least two dollars in social costs. Large majorities of the public support such programmes. Yet almost half the states which legalised sports betting since May 2018 have not provided a single cent of funding to mitigate harm. NCPG has pushed back on the proposed 75% cut in Nevada’s problem gambling budget, the same month they increased the limit on debit transactions at gaming devices by 10x with no limit on the number of daily withdrawals.
EI: What has been the most satisfying achievement for your team and yourself over this year?
While we have made significant cuts to programmes so far, we have not had to lay off any staff as they are our most precious resource. And while overall our funding has plummeted, we actually have gained more corporate members than we’ve lost over the past few months.
EI: Over your career, you’ve navigated challenge and reached success. What advice would you offer those just starting out in the industry?
Gambling is one of the most dynamic and innovative industries I’ve ever seen but rarely does the industry focus its attention and harness its talent to address responsible gambling. The status quo in the US is terribly low, but that means there are tremendous opportunities to revolutionise responsible gambling for those who dream big and lead boldly.
EI: There are many stakeholders in betting & gaming: government, regulator, industry, media, gambling education and harm-prevention bodies, players and customers. Which one thing would you highlight as important for improving the conversation among all these stakeholders, in the USA, nationally, and in the most important US States?
The simplest but most impactful way to unite all stakeholders, cut costs by eliminating duplication and, most importantly, massively improve access to help for people with gambling problems, is for everyone to adopt our National Problem Gambling Helpline. Although this nationwide resource has been available since 1985 when Harrah’s (now Caesars) first funded it, more than 20 states have set up their own helplines since. When these numbers don’t work in other states it creates costly compliance burdens for operators and vendors who have to either promote multiple numbers (in even tinier font) on broadcast ads and websites. Multiple numbers confuse callers and cause harm when desperate gamblers dial the wrong helpline and can’t get the help they need.
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