April 19, 2023
New Jersey Continues Push to Curb Problem Gambling
New Jersey legislators, led by Assemblyman Daniel Benson, push for bills addressing problem gambling, including a unique education bill requiring high school students to learn about the risks of compulsive gambling and the establishment of Gambling Treatment Diversion Court Pilot Program.
- New Jersey Assemblyman Daniel Benson Pushes for Gambling Education, Gambling Courts.
- Experts Suggest New Jersey is Wise to Lead the Charge on Problem Gambling Legislation.
- Nevada, Virginia, and Michigan All Serve as Models for Addressing Problem Gambling.
From the Atlantic City Boardwalk to mobile sports betting, New Jersey has always been near the forefront of gambling initiatives. Now, as sports betting expands across the country, legislatures in New Jersey are at the forefront of a different form of gambling legislature: bills aimed at addressing problem gambling.
One of the primary sponsors of several bills intended to curb problem gambling, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), recently resigned to join the board of an insurance company. However, other legislators are taking up the mission. Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer, Middlesex) is one of those legislators, and he took the time to speak with Great.com about some of the proposed bills he is involved with that would address problem gambling.
Educating New Jersey Students About Gambling
Benson is a supporter of a unique education bill, A5308, which would require school districts to instruct high school students about the risks of compulsive gambling as part of their health curriculum.
Specifically, A5308 requires “each school district that includes grades nine through 12, or any combination thereof, shall incorporate instruction on the potential risks of compulsive gambling into the curriculum for students as part of the district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education.”
Benson believes that a key to curbing problem gambling is explaining how gambling works earlier. Students need to understand that “gambling is a form of entertainment, not a means to earn money,” Benson told Great.com. “No matter how good your fantasy team is, nothing is a sure bet.”
Benson says that A5308 is important because students are being bombarded with pro-gambling messages, and therefore additional education is needed to ensure that New Jersey students understand the risks involved with gambling. Although the legal age of gambling is 21 in New Jersey, The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates up to 6% of kids ages 12 to 17 have a gambling problem, while up to 14% are at risk of developing an addiction.
“The normalization of gambling in our culture has to come with normalization of prevention and education programs,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the NCPG. “For something like alcohol, we talk to kids about it, we talk in church about it, we talk in school about it. We know youth are exposed to a ton of gambling and alcohol ads, and they’ve seen their parents having a drink at home, but now they’re seeing them make a bet at home.”
Benson has also seen anecdotal evidence that college students, who may be of legal gambling age, are engaging in heavier gambling. While another proposed bill, A5226, would prohibit sports betting advertising at public colleges and universities in New Jersey, Benson hopes that early education is a tool that will help students understand gambling before they ever step foot on a university campus.
The New Jersey Assemblyman doesn’t stand alone. “Gambling has seemingly overnight become pervasive within our culture,” said Brianne Doura-Schawohl, a leading responsible gambling consultant. “It’s on every radio and TV station, on our phones, billboards, sponsorships with universities, pizza chains, on donuts, it’s everywhere. Yet, the lack of education surrounding the risks associated with gambling participation — especially for the nation’s youth — has not increased at the same rate as the access and interest.
“And let’s not kid ourselves, the kids are interested. I mean, look at the younger demographics that were flocking to Robinhood. Just as children are taught in schools about other notable public health issues — alcohol, drugs, tobacco, unprotected sex, etc. — gambling education warrants a place within the curriculum.”
Benson sees another key aspect of A5308 to be teaching students about “gambling within their means” once they are of age. Finally, Benson wants New Jersey students to know how to get help if they do fall into problem gambling. One of those avenues for help is the New Jersey Responsible Gaming Initiative, which helps to identify and assist problem gamblers by using information collected by online gaming operators regarding patrons’ playing habits.
In addition to the Responsible Gaming Initiative, New Jersey’s framework for addressing gambling addiction includes a self-exclusion system, a requirement that all gambling advertisements include certain responsible gaming language and wagering options for patrons to select to monitor and control the amount of time and funds they spend on gambling, including time and deposit limits.
Anyone in New Jersey who is struggling with a gambling problem can also always call or text the state’s free helpline 1– 800-GAMBLER for confidential support. Additionally, gamers who are concerned with their betting can employ available options on gaming websites, including 72-hour or longer “cool off” periods, one and five-year self-exclusions, self-imposed deposit or loss limits, or permanent self-exclusion through the DGE.
Establishing New Jersey Gambling Courts
Benson is also a sponsor of A420, a proposal that would create a Gambling Treatment Diversion Court Pilot Program. Benson believes it is good that “gambling has come out of the shadows.” However, while those that run afoul of the law due to gambling addictions must “still accept responsibility” for their actions and pay restitution, the Gambling Treatment Division Program would provide a safety net where offenders can find rehabilitation rather than punishment.
The proposed bill calls for the establishment of three gambling courts: one in the northern region of the State, another in the central region, and a final location in the southern region of New Jersey. These three courts, alongside associated health professionals, would determine if the person convicted is eligible to join the program or if they require more extreme consequences.
Benson, Caputo, and Anthony Verrelli (D-Hunterdon, Mercer) issued a joint statement in March about the legislation, stating, “We should be helping those with gambling addictions who have committed minor offenses, not imprisoning them. With the three locations throughout the State, we will be able to provide services for everyone referred to the Gambling Treatment Diversion Court Pilot Program.”
Benson told Great.com that gambling’s birthplace—the State of Nevada—has seen success in its implementation of a gambling diversion program, and he hopes to use a similar model to assist the citizens of New Jersey who have succumbed to criminal activity due to problem gambling.
Problem Gambling Initiatives in Other States
Most states with legalized mobile gaming have focused their concerns on gambling advertising. For example, the Ohio Casino Control Commission recently approved two settlements that fined Barstool and DraftKings sportsbooks $250,000 and $500,000, respectively, for violations of Ohio laws governing sports betting advertising. However, legislation like the proposed bills in New Jersey that would address problem gambling at the individual level is less commonplace.
The Nevada Gambling Treatment Diversion Court
The Gambling Treatment Diversion Court (GTDC), from which New Jersey A420 finds inspiration, was commenced in November 2018 with Judge Cheryl Moss presiding. Nevada Revised Statutes 458A defines eligible defendants as those that have been convicted of a crime and committed that crime in furtherance, or as a result, of problem gambling. A qualified mental health professional must examine and determine whether the defendant is a problem gambler. Those who commit a violent crime, a crime against a child, or a sexual offense are not eligible for the program. Participants must agree to pay restitution as a condition of treatment.
The Eighth Judicial District GDTC is a court-supervised, comprehensive treatment program for those in the criminal justice system due to a problem gambling disorder. The program is currently the only one of its kind in the country. Treatment for the 18-to-36-month GTDC program includes individual and group counseling focused on problem gambling,
State-funded Certified Problem Gambling Counselors provide the treatment. Participants may also be required to complete substance abuse and mental health counseling, wellness education, peer support, and drug and alcohol testing when needed.
Additional services include residential treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, anger management, and impulse control groups, gender-specific and trauma treatment, grief and loss treatment, treatment targeting criminal behavior, and family therapy. Program participants are required to pay an administrative fee of $1,500 after they have paid their entire restitution. However, the treatment costs are covered by insurance or state grant funds.
The Nevada Council on Problem Gambling estimates that problem gambling may affect up to 6% of adults in Nevada. Nearly 150,000 people in Nevada are believed to suffer the negative emotional, financial, and personal consequences of problem gambling; a behavior known to compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family, or vocational pursuits. The Council also believes that problem gambling can lead to criminal activity.
Chief Judge Linda Marie Bell, who presides over the GTDC shared the details of how Judge Moss prompted her to start a Gambling Treatment Diversion court. “Honestly, without Judge Moss, we would not have this court today,” said Judge Bell.
“I am proud to represent Nevada,” said Judge Moss. She says that Ohio and New Jersey are looking at adding a Gambling Treatment Diversion court.
Participants who appear before Judge Bell give progress reports on their treatment and their lives. One participant shared the biggest difference he has seen in himself, “I went from not caring about my future to overly caring about my future.
Student Gambling Education in Virginia
The only other state that currently has a bill comparable to New Jersey’s high school gambling education bill, A5308 is Virginia. Virginia’s HB 1108 added school instruction on gambling addiction to the existing curriculum on drug and alcohol abuse, rather than A5308’s proposal to add gambling education to the health curriculum. Also unlike New Jersey’s A5308, Virginia’s bill moved through a subcommittee on a unanimous vote, cruised through the Committee on Education by a margin of 20-2, and passed in the State’s House of Delegates with a 97-3 vote, all in a week’s time this past February.
It did not receive a single “no” vote in the Virginia Senate. It moved through the Committee on Education and Health by a 15-0 margin on March 3, and on March 8 passed in the Senate with a 39-0 vote. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the bill into law on April 8.
“This process was relatively straightforward,” said Virginia Delegate Sam Rasoul, a Democrat, who sponsored the bill. “It was met with no opposition, and by that I mean no entity — no one testified against it. It was just presented in a common-sense way. We already teach about addiction, so why don’t we integrate gambling into that, too?”
Virginia’s HB1108 specifically requires instruction concerning gambling and the addictive potential thereof to be provided by the public schools as prescribed by the Board of Education. The bill requires the Board of Education to report to the Chairmen of the House Committee on Education and the Senate Committee on Education and Health a description of such instruction.
“This is about to start a wave,” said consultant Brianne Doura-Schawohl, who is involved in problem gaming efforts across the country. “A unanimous vote [in the Virginia Senate] really speaks volumes to the problems policymakers are having with this market.”
New Jersey’s proposed student gambling education bill would go even further. Not only would it tackle the dangers of gambling addiction, but it would also discuss concepts such as “probability versus predictability,” a lesson many would-be gamblers — teen or adult — would likely benefit from.
Virginia’s legislation may contain an even bigger misstep. There is no specific funding for the bill, and the impact statement associated with it says, “Any cost to develop instruction concerning gambling can be absorbed by the Department of Education. Any fiscal impact to local school divisions is indeterminate.” That’s not a good sign for advocates who have struggled to squeeze funds out of states for problem gaming program legislation across the country.
“It’s a little bit of an unfunded mandate, which probably means in a couple of years we’ll have to pass it again with funding,” NCPG Executive Director Keith Whyte said. “And that means it could get sidelined, but gambling addiction gets sidelined, anyway. It sets a precedent, though. If we’re able to show impact or a lack of impact, that just creates a better argument. Virginia is making millions and millions. We can find the money.”
Doura-Schawohl suggested that a better tactic would be to have educational programs “embedded” into expanded gambling legislation, but that is still a work in progress. Language similar to the West Virginia legislation on a financial literacy program in high schools was part of the discussion in the Missouri House, but it didn’t make the final versions of the sports betting bills that have moved over to the Senate. Doura-Schawohl and other advocates are hoping that similar language will be added to a Senate bill.
Student Gambling Education in Michigan
Sen. Joseph N. Bellino Jr. (R-Monroe), introduced bipartisan Michigan legislation in February to help inform teenagers about the risks associated with gambling.
“With the popularity of mobile betting apps and online sports betting now being legal in over 30 states, teenagers are having problems with gambling addiction,” Bellino said in a press release. “It has been reported that many young people don’t see gambling as risky and that the percentage of high school students with a gambling problem is double that of adults. My bill has bipartisan support to head off this growing problem by acting to raise awareness among our students about the real risks of gambling.”
Senate Bill 54 would require the state Department of Education to develop a grade-and-age-appropriate model program of instruction on gambling addiction by July 1, 2024. It would be available to school districts and public school academies.
“Just as our teachers currently inform students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, we need them to also educate them about the serious consequences of gambling addiction,” Bellino said.
SB54 would see high school students educated on the risks of gambling, similar to their education on the risk of drugs and alcohol use. It was originally referred to the Senate Education Committee for consideration but has not seen much progress.
The Michigan Gaming Control Board (MGCB) has also been pushing for responsible gambling to be the fourth “R” added to education along with reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Last fall, the MGCB put out a Responsible Gaming campaign, asking for parents, siblings, and peers to be aware of the signs of problem gambling in teens. Those include:
- Carrying gambling materials such as dice, cards, or poker chips.
- Gambling with money that is supposed to be used for school-related purposes.
- Skipping class or other school activities to gamble.
- Borrowing, stealing, and selling items to get money to gamble.
For the 2023 fiscal year, the MGCB sought and received additional funding for responsible gaming programs. The funding allowed them to expand their resources and increase staff focused on RG. The MGCB board plans to expand its responsible gaming outreach through a public-facing program that will launch soon.
Student Gambling Education in Maryland
Not all proposed gambling education bills have received such support. In Maryland, Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire filed a similar bill in three consecutive sessions, but it has not yet gotten through both branches of the legislature.
Simonaire’s 2022 bill, SB 363, was sent to the committee but has not made any progress there. In 2021, the bill stalled in committee, and in 2020, the bill passed through the Senate with a 44-2 vote but did not advance out of committee in the House.
“I simply cannot get a vote by the committee chair. … If we had the vote, we could pass it,” Simonaire said. “The main thrust of opposition is about a mandated curriculum. If you mandate one thing, you might mandate others.”
Simonaire’s bill calls for the Maryland Department of Education to “develop a program … on the dangers of gambling and gambling addiction” in high schools. This is slightly different from Virginia’s bill, where instruction on gambling addiction would be incorporated into its current curriculum on addiction.
“It is a concern that comes up, about what we should mandate,” Rasoul said. “In this case [in Virginia], we already say there must be addiction programming, and this bill would further expand it, as opposed to trying to introduce something completely new and make space for that.”
Simonaire considers it an obligation for Maryland, as a gaming state, to add preventative measures, especially for an industry that is generating so much revenue.
“The tax revenue we receive from the gaming industry is more than all our other business taxes combined,” said Simonaire, whose father “died penniless” after struggling with gambling addiction late in life. “The education system has a moral obligation to address the other side. Unfortunately, with government, we often are reacting to problems after they occur, and this is preventative.”
Student Gambling Education in West Virginia
A bill to address educating youth on gambling addiction in West Virginia was tied to a statute that requires state educators to “provide students a basic understanding of personal finance.”
HB 4812, which was sponsored by Democratic Delegate Sean Hornbuckle and Republican Delegate Larry Pack, called for a “personal finance literacy pilot program to be implemented in at least five public high schools” in the 2022-2023 school year, with “information concerning the nature of gambling and problem gambling” part of the curriculum. However, the bill was not addressed by the House Education Committee, and the West Virginia legislative session ended on March 12.
Hornbuckle’s complaints are similar to Simonaire’s. “For whatever reason, we’ve been stonewalled. For what reason? I can’t tell you, honestly,” said Hornbuckle, who said that he also tried to get gambling addiction education tacked on to another bill but was denied. “My bill did not leave the committee. They didn’t even discuss it.”
Hornbuckle said he plans to file the bill again next legislative session. “I think it’s definitely a worthy cause,” he said. “It’s one of those things that there can be no harm from it. So, the question is, what’s the hesitation?”
New Jersey is in the Familiar Role of a “First Mover.” Can it be Best?
“Virginia, New Jersey, and Michigan are all first movers in what these bills aim to achieve — preventing harm,” Schawohl said. “But other states will need to follow for this to be successful. Research clearly highlights the dangers of youth gambling participation, so at the end of the day, these pieces of legislation are about one thing, saving lives. Oh, and it works.”
New Jersey is in a familiar place as one of the first states to pass gambling legislation. By keeping an eye on the Nevada Gambling Treatment Diversion Court, as well as the pending student education legislation in Michigan and recently passed bill in Virginia, New Jersey could also be poised to have some of the best.