SEIGMA study finds financial and health problems, stress are most common negative gambling impacts

University of Massachusetts epidemiology faculty Rachel Volberg and Robert Williams of the University of Lethridge are co-PIs on the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) Study

From left: Rachel Volberg and Robert Williams

February 2, 2017

Researchers studying gambling in Massachusetts before the opening of two new major casinos in the state presented results today to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission from a second baseline study of gambling impacts in the Commonwealth, based on an online panel survey of 5,046 residents.

Co-investigators Rachel Volberg, Research Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, and professor Robert Williams of the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, were first on the agenda with their report, “Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts: Results of a Baseline Online Panel Survey.”

They say that financial problems were the most commonly reported negative impact of gambling, experienced by 3.8 percent of gamblers and roughly 51.1 percent of problem gamblers. “In addition, 5.2 percent of problem gamblers declared bankruptcy because of gambling. Health and stress-related problems were almost as common as financial problems, reported by 3.8 percent of gamblers and roughly 48.6 percent of problem gamblers. Mental health problems were the next most common impact, reported by 3.2 percent of gamblers and roughly 34 percent of problem gamblers,” Williams and Volberg report.

These results are from a survey that ran concurrently with another survey conducted in 2013-2014 for the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) Study, part of a legislatively mandated research agenda funded and overseen by the Gaming Commission. Findings from both were completed before any casino or slot machine gambling was available in Massachusetts in order for the Gaming Commission to identify possible impacts and develop strategies to minimize gambling-related harm.

The online panel yielded 2.5 times more problem and pathological gamblers, 317, than the 129 problem gamblers identified by the general population survey, the authors report. As Volberg explains, “This was a concurrent survey using a different sampling strategy, an online panel instead of a general population survey.” An online panel is a commercially available database of many thousands of people who agree to participate in online surveys for compensation. An online panel can obtain results from a much larger number of people than a general population survey at a much lower cost.

The larger sample was needed, she adds, because “even with a very large sample from a general population survey there are not enough problem gamblers to look in detail at possible impacts. We needed a way to get information from a lot more problem gamblers for this analysis.”

“We definitely were pleased that the sampling strategy we used worked, and that we were able to get information from such a large number of people affected by gambling,” she notes. “These are really baseline results. The intent is to do this exact same survey again a year after the two large casinos open, to see if these impacts have changed.”

Co-lead investigator Williams, a research coordinator for the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, told the Gaming Commission that study goals included understanding problem gamblers and the prevalence of such negative personal impacts as bankruptcy, suicide attempts, divorce and arrests, for example, as well as the possible impacts of different types of gambling on these experiences. Overall goals also included assessing problem gamblers’ treatment-seeking behavior and how these indices may change after casino introduction.

Volberg says that because this was a baseline survey, the researchers had no surprises. “In fact,” she says, “we know from studies in other jurisdictions that financial and health impacts are the most frequent effects on people who gamble. One of the most interesting aspects of this survey compared to previous work we have done is that we were able to look at harmful impacts among people who gamble in a broad sense rather than just focus on people who meet criteria for problem or pathological gambling.”

Other data reported today include that “suicidal thoughts were relatively uncommon, reported by just 4.4 percent of problem gamblers. Relationship problems were also relatively infrequent, reported by just 1.1 percent of gamblers and roughly 16.3 percent of problem gamblers.” The researchers also say that 9.1 percent of problem gamblers report neglecting their children or family, 5.2 percent reported domestic violence and 3.7 percent became separated or divorced due to gambling.

Further, “only a minority of problem gamblers, 28.2 percent, reported that certain types of gambling contributed to their problems more than others. For those that did report this, there was no type of gambling that was overwhelmingly endorsed.”

Volberg and Williams say a follow-up online panel survey will be administered in 2020 to examine the change in these impacts as a result of the introduction of casino gambling to Massachusetts. They and their SEIGMA team colleagues say results of this and other surveys will be useful “in developing data-driven strategies to promote responsible gambling, raise awareness about problem gambling and design general and targeted prevention and treatment programs for problem gamblers and their families.”

Read more here.