Study Sheds New Light on Gambling Behaviors

University of Massachusetts Epidemiology faculty Rachel Volberg

Rachel Volberg

October 12, 2021

An unprecedented gambling study led by Research Professor of Epidemiology Rachel Volberg has ended with the delivery of a sweeping, 178-page report that advances knowledge on gambling behaviors and recommends prevention, treatment, and policy guidelines to support players’ health.

“MAGIC [Massachusetts Gambling Impact Cohort] is the only major cohort study ever done where there was a significant expansion of commercial gambling during the period of the study,” says Volberg. The study was mandated by Massachusetts legislation that approved the introduction of casinos in the Commonwealth.

Volberg gave an overview of the study's findings on October 7, 2021, to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission as the findings and recommendations were publicly presented. “The report has been nothing short of remarkable,” remarked Cathy Judd-Stein, chair of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Calling the report “very informative and very impressive,” Commissioner Bradford Hill, a state representative, said the findings can be used as a roadmap to help people with problem gambling.

By surveying the same individuals over time, the MAGIC cohort study gathered and analyzed data to help understand how gambling and problem gambling develops, progresses and remits. The bottom line is complex but clear: “There is no silver bullet to prevent problem gambling,” says Volberg, who was recently honored with a lifetime research award by the National Council on Problem Gambling. 

Rather, the UMass Amherst research team known as SEIGMA (Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts) developed seven policy recommendations to support the Gaming Commission’s mission. The recommendations include restricting access to alcohol on the gaming floor and to ATMs in gambling venues, and sending automated alerts to players when their gambling behavior escalates. 

“The Gaming Commission was given the responsibility for minimizing and mitigating the negative impacts of casinos, as well as ensuring a viable new industry,” Volberg says. “Clearly there were enough protections that were put into place in the legislation and given to the Gaming Commission to prevent the worst from happening.”

The study’s findings have been eagerly anticipated. “The MGC is thrilled to receive this report,” says Mark Vander Linden, the Gaming Commission’s director of research and responsible gaming. “MAGIC sheds new light on gambling behavior and provides valuable insight for the development of targeted prevention, treatment, and policy to support player health.” 

Volberg and co-lead investigator Robert Williams, professor of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, have worked on similar gambling studies in countries across the globe. “Between us, Rob and I were able to build on what had been learned in those other cohort studies,” Volberg says. 

The research team surveyed the same 3,000 or so residents five times over six years. The comprehensive surveys assessed: gambling-related behavior and attitudes; problem gambling; physical and mental health; substance use and abuse; social functioning; and personality and demographics. The initial survey wave, in 2013-14, occurred before the opening of the first slot parlor, Plainridge Park Casino, in June 2015. Subsequent waves were carried out annually before and after the opening of the state’s two large resort-casinos – MGM Springfield in August 2018 and Boston Encore in June 2019. 

The MAGIC study focused on several key objectives, in addition to understanding how gambling and problem gambling develop and remit. “We wanted to identify demographic groups at risk of experiencing gambling-related problems,” Volberg says. “And finally, we highlighted the risk and protective factors important in developing effective prevention and treatment programs and policies to support player health.”

Volberg points to two findings she found particularly interesting. There was a significant decrease in out-of-state gambling by Massachusetts residents after the casinos opened in Massachusetts, suggesting that these people and their dollars were “recaptured” by the new Bay State resorts, as hoped by the legislature.

Surprisingly, researchers also saw an increase in problem gambling behavior before MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor opened. Analyses revealed that this was due to increased relapse rates among people with a prior history of problem gambling. “It appears that the media coverage, advertising and general publicity about the pending openings precipitated relapse and may be equally if not more important than the actual increase in physical availability of gambling,” Volberg says. 

The data also confirmed for the first time what has been anecdotally observed for many years in Gamblers Anonymous groups – that a large gambling loss or win is correlated with a greater intensity of gambling involvement. “Many people get in trouble after experiencing a big gambling win,” Volberg says.

Because people experiencing gambling harm rarely seek help, Volberg recommends that screenings for problem gambling be incorporated during mental health and substance abuse assessments and treatment, and self-help materials need to be readily available. Other preventive measures recommended include educational and policy efforts that especially target males and lower income groups, both of whom are at higher risk for problem gambling, the study found.

“There needs to be a lot of community outreach and education about the risks of placing gambling opportunities in lower-income neighborhoods, as well as how those opportunities are marketed,” Volberg says.

The complete report is available from the Gaming Commission’s website and an accompanying fact sheet is available from the SEIGMA team.