Gov. Pete Ricketts is no fan of gambling. So his recent comments come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his political platform. He is correct that a certain, small percentage of the population struggles with problem gambling. What is far from clear is that Nebraska’s insistence on gaming prohibition is in any way curbing the state’s issues with problem gambling. The state’s response is almost certainly making things worse for those facing issues. Those at-risk individuals still have limitless possibilities for gambling, including illegal online casinos, underground gambling outlets, casinos in neighboring states in all directions, and, most hypocritically, the Nebraska Lottery.
For more than two decades, Nebraska has struggled to form a coherent policy response to the casinos in Council Bluffs, Iowa, which pull in many customers from Nebraska’s largest metro area. While anti-gambling groups repeat the same sensational anecdotes of gambling addiction, they fail to take the next step to address the issue head on. Demonizing gambling doesn’t work. Acceptance of casinos as a form of entertainment continues to grow steadily, with more than 86% considering it fully acceptable. Now, Nebraskans are taking matters into their own hands, and will have their first chance to vote to bring casino gaming to the state in November.
Gov. Rickett’s gaming abstinence plan is also shortsighted in that brick-and-mortar casinos across the Missouri River are far from the biggest source of illegal gambling in the state. Offshore websites offering sports betting and casino gaming rake in billions of dollars from Americans each year, and estimates show that as many as 400,000 Nebraskans have partaken in illegal online sports betting. Also concerning is that nearly two-thirds of these people don’t realize they are betting illegally, according to a recent survey by the American Gaming Association. This trend will only grow as states continue to legalize sports wagering at a rapid pace and accelerate the mainstream adoption of sports wagering in popular media. People in Nebraska want to bet, and whether they’re driving over the border or staying home and doing it on their couch, Gov. Ricketts is powerless to stop it.
A recent study by UNLV’s International Gaming Institute compels a different course of action. Rather than push people into unregulated and potentially exploitative gambling outlets, the study recommends a well-regulated, legal gaming infrastructure. Sensible but tough regulations, strong consumer protections and ample responsible gaming programming and support are key tenets. While offshore sports betting companies offer little or no problem gaming help, regulated sportsbooks in 18 states have mandatory problem gambling support features that have proven effective in mitigating harm. Gov. Ricketts is correct that detecting warning signs is a crucial step in stopping problem gambling. But you can’t detect what is happening in the unregulated market or in other states. The governor, unintentionally, has made the best argument for a well-regulated, legal online gambling market.
Let’s dispel another myth: Allowing regulated gambling in Nebraska won’t result in the massive uptick in problem gambling incidences. UNLV, citing academic studies, shows that the introduction of new forms of gambling, when combined with evidence-based treatment and prevention programming, is likely to reduce problem gambling harms. Because so much gambling already exists, many of these harms are already present but go largely undetected and untreated. If Nebraska could capture the money flowing offshore and over state lines, it could easily fund more robust problem gambling treatment and programming.
Casinos and online gaming won’t singlehandedly save Nebraska’s economy, but it is irresponsible for policy makers to turn down a new source of revenue and job creation when the state is rebounding from the biggest economic shock in decades. Not only will regulated gaming bring tens of millions in tax revenue, it will provide more than ample funding for any problem gaming expenditures that the state is already undertaking.
Gambling prohibition is not a viable policy in the Internet era, and Nebraska will continue to pay the costs of this outdated mentality until it adopts a modern, data-driven approach to this growing industry.
Charles Gillespie is chief executive of Gambling.com Group.