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Is Virginia prepared for growing easy access to gambling?

Craig Wright

In the last five years, access to gambling across Virginia has grown at a dizzying pace. Historic horse race machines, legalized sportsbooks, so-called “skill games,” plus four casinos set to be fully operational by next year.

Dr. Carolyn Hawley is President of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling and explains where things stand, “Since 2018, what we’ve seen is a huge expansion in the forms of legal gambling. You can see some of that reflected in our helpline calls.”

VCPG President Dr. Carolyn Hawley
Virginia council on Problem Gambling
VCPG President Dr. Carolyn Hawley

Hawley cites statistics, “Since 2018 to 2022 what we’ve seen is almost an 800% increase in our total calls.”

Local governments and businesses will reap the benefits. But the ease of access will also bring with it a percentage of players who will fall victim to the addiction of gambling. It’s an expected and accepted part of the equation.

Hawley continues, “As we see more forms of gambling become available, we’re seeing individuals developing gambling problems.”

But are the necessary measures in place to handle the surge of problem gamblers? Dr. Hawley isn’t sure they are.

Dr. Carolyn Hawley extended interview

“We knew that there was going to be initiatives for the casino and sports betting and we needed money attached to that to help protect the citizens of The Commonwealth. Unfortunately, what’s happened for us with the council is, we are seeing greater needs in this state and we are not receiving any of those state funds. Outside of what the lottery has done with the helpline, there just has not been any resources. So we’re playing catch up,” says Hawley.

Thomas Dozier is on the board of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling. He counts himself among those who fell victim to addiction.

Dozier recalls, “I was 57 years of age and I knew I just couldn’t do it on my own. So I started going to G.A. meetings.”

Horseracing was his game of choice and he remembers his moment of realization.

VCPG Board Member Thomas Dozier
Virginia Council on Problem Gambling
VCPG Board Member Thomas Dozier

“I was sitting in Costco and I had just bet the Pick 6 I think at Santa Anita and I wanted to watch the last race because I knew I was live in the Pick 6. So I downloaded the Twin Spires app to watch the races. And I watched the race. I almost cried – I’m almost crying telling the story now cause I go, 'God, I’m watching the races on my phone – what a piece of crap I am! This is not right. I said I would never, ever do this.'”

Clean of gambling since 2017, Dozier now offers his experience to others fighting their own battle. And his advice to those wanting to help themselves is clear:

“Get to a meeting and we’ll take it from there. Do I need to work the steps… Get to a meeting! Do I need to… Get to a meeting!

VCPG Board Member Thomas Dozier extended interview

Dozier says those who profit from the business of gambling should be doing all they can for those who need help.

“Being a Libertarian, I don’t want the government involved. But they’re getting involved because they’re getting their piece. So if they’re going to get their piece – can we just split a piece of their piece off to help the compulsive gambler who still struggles.”

When I asked Dr. Hawley about what the long-term impact of easy access to gambling could be in Virginia and society in general, Hawley reflected and then let out a heavy sigh before continuing, “That’s what we think about. But I mean looking here, there was a JLARC study that was done last November and talking about gaming in Virginia from 2018 to 2021 had almost tripled. By 2022, it had quadrupled. It’s anticipated that by 2025 that this is going to be over 21 billion wagered legally— and I want to point out legally— in this state. And as we know, we still have skill games proliferating. There’s going to be impacts about that and we need to be prepared.”

Dr. Hawley would like to see treatment for gambling addiction gain the same acceptance as those for alcohol and substance abuse – and to make people aware of the resources available for those seeking help.

The Problem Gambling Helpline phone number is: (888) 532-3500.

Craig Wright hosts All Things Considered on Radio IQ.