UMass Amherst Research Team Previews Findings and Recommendations from Groundbreaking Gambling Study

Rachel Volberg
Rachel Volberg

AMHERST, Mass. – Coinciding with Problem Gambling Awareness Month, a University of Massachusetts Amherst research team previewed findings on Wednesday from the groundbreaking Massachusetts Gambling Impact Cohort (MAGIC) study in a free, public webinar.

The webinar drew more interest and attendance than any previous event presented by the UMass Amherst research team known as SEIGMA (Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts), according to Rachel Volberg, principal investigator of the SEIGMA and MAGIC studies, who moderated the webinar.

MAGIC was the first major cohort study of gambling in the United States, surveying the same individuals over six years to understand more about how gambling and problem gambling develop and progress, and how remission from problem gambling occurs. The study was commissioned by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) as part of its robust research agenda aimed at gauging the impacts of introducing casinos in the state.

Following a presentation by MAGIC co-lead investigator Robert Williams, a panel representing problem gambling research and prevention efforts across the Commonwealth discussed the preliminary findings and policy recommendations.

The findings revealed evidence that the state has been successful in its goal to “repatriate” Massachusetts dollars previously spent at casinos in nearby states. “This is good news,” Williams said. In addition, the introduction of casinos “had no negative impact” on lottery participation.

The study found a decrease in out-of-state casino gambling participation – from about 33% in 2013-14 to 16% in 2019 – and an increase in in-state casino gambling, up to 14% in 2019, following the opening of Plainridge Park, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor.

The four gambling categories – non-gamblers, recreational gamblers, at-risk gamblers and problem gamblers – remained relatively stable over the study period, with about 70% of participants identifying as recreational gamblers. About 14% of the 3,000-plus participants from across the state were non-gamblers; about 12.5% were at-risk gamblers; and about 3.5% were problem gamblers.

Nearly 20% of the at-risk gamblers subsequently become problem gamblers, but “a much more common route” was moving back to recreational gambling, the study found.

Researchers theorize that the “very small” but statistically significant increase in problem gamblers – from 2.3% in 2013-14 to 3.7% in 2019 – resulted not from the opening of MGM and Boston Harbor but from the publicity in various media that preceded the openings. They found a coinciding increase in internet searches related to casinos during this period, suggesting that the media hoopla and advertising “precipitated relapse. We can’t prove that but it’s very tantalizing,” Williams said.

Williams’ presentation emphasized that “there is no ‘silver bullet’ to prevent problem gambling. Rather, a wide array of educational and policy initiatives is neededto address the multifaceted biopsychosocial” causes.

The study identified more than 100 individual, social and environmental variables that predict and mediate the development of future gambling and problem gambling. Gambling-related variables, such as biggest loss or win in a single day, were the strongest variables associated with problem gambling.

The findings of the many other risk factors – such as having lower income, being male, having substance abuse or mental health challenges – were consistent with previous research.

“Each problem gambler has a unique array of risk factors,” Williams said. “You need to tackle problem gambling from a multidirectional way as well.”

When problem gamblers were asked what they thought caused their problem, the top three responses were: a desire to win, 30.2%; boredom/enjoyment/excitement, 21.4%; and 9.3% denied a problem even though they self-scored in the problem gambler category.

The research team’s preliminary policy recommendations, which are aimed at supporting the development and expansion of effective, efficient treatment and prevention programs in Massachusetts, include:

  • Limit gambling advertising;
  • Expand focused educational efforts that promote knowledge, motivations and attitudes conducive to responsible gambling;
  • Screen people with substance abuse and mood disorders for gambling behaviors;
  • Encourage problem gamblers to seek treatment.

In the webinar’s closing remarks, MGC chair Cathy Judd-Stein called the study’s findings “riveting” and said they would provide guidance for state regulators and policy makers.

“There has been no other longitudinal study of gambling behavior of this scale in the United States,” she said. “It shapes our understanding of gambling behavior in Massachusetts and contributes to the few comparable studies worldwide.”