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Sports betting is now legal in Ohio. Experts worry about a rise in gambling addiction

Four hands hold phones with sports betting apps open. The screens are cracked, and sporting equipment, money and dice are flying out of them.
Lauren Green
Ideastream Public Media
Sports betting became legal in Ohio on Jan. 1. Experts are warning this will lead to an increase in problem gambling.

On Jan. 1, Ohio became one of the latest states to legalize sports betting. More than three fifths of the country has made this move in recent years. These states have seen a massive increase in problem gambling, Problem Gambling Network of Ohio Associate Director Mike Buzzelli said.

"We anticipate and have seen problem rates rise in the other states that have legalized it in the past few years," Buzzelli said, "so we anticipate that as well."

He warns what to watch out for.

“It’s going to be very similar warning signs to any other addiction," Buzzelli said.

That includes spending more time and more money gambling, restlessness, irritability, isolation, borrowing money, lying and mood changes. Untreated gambling addictions can have serious outcomes, said Bill Newberry, a problem gambling and substance abuse counselor at Townhall II in Kent .

“It’s also the highest rate of suicide of any addiction," Newberry said.

One in five people who struggle with problem gambling commit suicide, Buzzelli said, and it’s likely that sports betting is more addicting than other forms of gambling.

“When more folks are engaging in it and at higher levels, we see problem gambling rates go up, so we obviously are adding a new form," Buzzelli said. "We’re making a new previously illegal form legal, but we’re also making it incredibly accessible.”

As of Jan. 1, people not only can place bets on sporting events at in-person betting facilities, they can also place bets on their phones.

"When individuals again have that ease or accessibility, then they can bet more often and quicker," Buzzelli said, "and what I can say is that when we're betting quick, then that becomes more addictable, right?"

The culture around sports isn't going to help sports betting's addictiveness, Newberry said.

"Because people are so obsessed with sports already, there's a possibility of it becoming more addicting," Newberry said.

Another concern Buzzelli has is sports betting's impact on college athletes. Sports fans will be able to bet on every move athletes make, which Buzzelli worries will put too much pressure on young student athletes. The Problem Gambling Network of Ohio advocated for sports betting to not include betting on Ohio college sports, but he said that never was going to be possible.

"A big reason why Ohioans want sports betting is not the Cleveland Browns or the Cincinnati Bengals, but it's the Ohio State Buckeyes, right?," Buzzelli said.

This wraps into another concern Buzzelli has: college-aged men being the most susceptible to problem gambling. Newberry warns men in this age group who already participate in betting will be more prone to gambling addictions.

"It's more the people who are already doing some betting who are going to get in trouble," Newberry said.

Most college students can't legally place bets, as the age to legally gamble is 21 in the state. Newberry worries that underage gambling will be an issue.

"That possibility is pretty high, especially because on the mobile apps you can lie about your age or you can sign in under somebody else's name and date of birth," Newberry said.

Treatment for problem gambling is accessible and effective, both Buzzelli and Newberry said.

One effective tool Newberry often suggests to his clients is the Voluntary Exclusion Program, where people can ban themselves from casinos and racinos for different amounts of time.

"That will be connected to sports gambling so the sports books that are in those venues and the ability to download the apps and things like that," Buzzelli said.

Ohio is ready to take on problem gambling with the legalization of sports betting, Buzzelli and Newberry said. They feel hopeful the precautions and laws in place will help prevent and provide treatment to those struggling.

"The one thing I can say about Ohio is we are known as one of the number one states in the country in problem gambling treatment and prevention," Newberry said.

One example of problem gambling prevention in the state is the way sports betting companies advertise. Advertisements right now tout risk free bets, but that will change once it's legalized.

"Come Jan. 1, they won't be able to advertise risk free bet," Buzzelli said, "because every bet has a risk involved in it."

If you or someone you know is struggling with problem gambling, contact the Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline at 800-589-9966. And if you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the suicide prevention lifeline at 9-8-8.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.