Feature Stories

Anticipating Casino Gambling

UMass researchers study the impacts as Massachusetts gets ready to roll the dice
  • Outline of Massachusetts, dice, chips, gambling image

Professor Rachel Volberg, who has researched gambling internationally for nearly thirty years, says this kind of study has never been done before in the history of legalized gambling. 

The debate over whether or not to legalize casino gambling in Massachusetts was long and heated, but the results are clear: casinos will soon grace the state. With $3.64 million from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), UMass Amherst epidemiologist Rachel Volberg and biostatistician Edward Stanek are leading an interdisciplinary team researching the social and economic impacts of their introduction to the state.

The recent passing of the Expanded Gaming Act requires that the MGC establish an “annual research agenda” in order to better understand the effects of expanded gaming in the Commonwealth. Volberg and Stanek’s research will provide a neutral database, generate early-detection markers, and evaluate in-state services as the commission annually reviews progress. The new legislation also stipulates that a Gaming Policy Advisory Committee be formed to help the commission make scientifically based recommendations to the legislature and avert any problems early on. Volberg, an internationally recognized gambling researcher, provided expert testimony early in the legislative process.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate in Massachusetts. It took quite a bit of time for the legislation to develop and it was debated on a number of occasions. And I think the value to that long process is that there were members of the legislature who actually became quite informed and aware of what best practices were internationally,” Volberg says.

Stanek, Volberg, and colleague Robert Williams at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, are co-principal investigators on the project, which includes researchers from UMass Amherst, the UMass Donahue Institute (UMDI), the University of Nevada-Reno, and MIT. Daniel Hodge, UMDI director of economic and public policy research, joins the principal investigators on the executive committee. The work officially started in April 2013 and is planned as a three-year project with three one-year extensions. Volberg, who has researched gambling internationally for nearly thirty years, says this kind of study has never been done before in the history of legalized gambling.

“I think we really have an opportunity to watch these issues as they unfold over time, as well as an opportunity to intervene in ways that aren’t possible unless you actually have the empirical evidence,” Volberg says.

The team has spent the first months of the study putting together a multi-modal survey that will serve as the baseline study for the research. Surveys and other primary data are being collected by NORC at the University of Chicago, Ipsos USA Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., and Market Street Research of Northampton.

The survey will be sent to 10,000 in-state residents using a random address-based sampling method. These interviews will provide the team crucial primary data surrounding gambling participation, any gambling problems (or associated disorders) and demographics. The data will enable the team to look for emerging patterns and shed new light on trends tracked over the years.

“Probably the most intriguing trend that we’ve noticed [is that] even when governments keep increasing the amount of gambling allowed, pretty much uniformly there’s high participation early on and then a decline,” Volberg says.

Other team members have already started collecting secondary data. Hodge and his team at UMDI—Rebecca Loveland, Lindsay Koshgarian, Carrie Bernstein, and John Gaviglio—have begun identifying and gathering statistics regarding government revenue, tourism, housing, business starts and failures, and employment. While UMDI researchers focus on the economic side of the project, Rosa Rodriguez-Monguio, Krishna Poudel, and Martha Zorn in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS) are looking more closely at the social impacts. The SPHHS team will collect data surrounding problem-gambling services, crime, leisure, education, socioeconomic inequality, public health, environmental issues, and quality of life. The team is also receiving secondary data from the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. Finally, once the casinos are established, Laurie Salame of Hospitality and Tourism Management will administer employee and patron surveys.

Natasha Schull, a cultural anthropologist at MIT, is working on a pending section of the legislation that deals with casino operators sharing information about their patrons through customer-loyalty cards. That data would be valuable to the commission, so Schull is looking at how it can be shared in a way that protects patrons’ identities. Mark Nichols of the University of Nevada-Reno is playing a role on the Economic Impact team and is helping the Social Impact team study the relationship between casino gambling and crime.

Volberg has planned studies of these proportions for over 15 years in other jurisdictions but was unable to find the necessary support. She gives Massachusetts, her home state, credit for threading research throughout the new legislation and looks forward to helping the Commonwealth make informed decisions.

“My sincere hope is that the work that we’re doing is going to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of introducing casino gambling in Massachusetts. I think especially to minimize the negative impacts you have to know what’s going on—you have to have information and you have to have evidence. And that’s what we are planning to provide to Massachusetts and the global community,” Volberg says.

Amanda Drane '12