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I-Team: Online gaming and sports betting could cause surge in gambling addictions

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Experts tell the News Channel 3 I-Team that online gambling and sports betting, now legal in Michigan, could cause a surge in gambling addictions. (WWMT/File)

Since online sports books and casinos became legal in Michigan in January 2021, it’s hard to turn anywhere without seeing an ad for some type of gambling.

Experts told the News Channel 3 I-Team this was having an impact on people struggling with gambling addictions, and could cause even more trouble in the near future.

"This is going to cause a lot of problems,” Michael Burke, president of the Michigan Association on Problem Gambling, said.

As of 2021, Burke had spent 15 years working to help people with gambling addictions. He said for years he was a problem gambler, losing millions of dollars on blackjack and other casino games.

With the ease of gambling, he worried many Michiganders would soon find themselves in a similar situation.

“Any time we offer a new form of gambling, we know, everybody knows, we are going to have an increase in gambling problems," Burke said.

In February, more than $300 million was gambled in online casinos and sports books in Michigan.

Data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also showed in February, the state’s Problem Gambling Helpline received 1,312 calls, more than twice the average monthly call volume since 2017.

At 2,361 calls, January and February 2021 had the highest two-month call volume over that period by more than 250 calls.

“You hit a couple of buttons and you’re $10,000 in debt,” Scott Smith, a licensed professional counselor with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, said.

As part of Smith's work, he often counseled people with addictions.

He noted it was hard to avoid online gambling, with commercials offering promotional deals at online casinos filling the airwaves, and ads popping up on billboards and social media sites.

“It’s certainly adding one more means to cause problems or to access a problem behavior if you’re struggling with that,” Smith said.

Smith said the ease of online gambling, with every computer or phone having the ability to function as a casino, meant Michigan could see a surge in gambling addictions.

“You don’t have to go somewhere anymore, you can do it from the comfort of your own home,” Smith said. “It’s harder to stop, it’s harder to put safeties in place if you are struggling with gambling since it’s so readily accessible.”

Burke said although he was a problem gambler, he wasn't anti-gambling and he believed people should be able to do what they wanted with their time and money.

The important part, he said, was ensuring there was a place for people to turn to.

“The chains of addiction are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken,” Burke said.

Many online casinos offered players the ability to limit the time and money they spent on gambling websites and apps.

Still, Burke said asking a gambling addict to police their own behavior was a recipe for disaster.

“A gambler seeks treatment after all of his or her money is gone,” he said.

Interest groups estimated about 3% of Michigan’s population, around 300,000 people, were problem gamblers.

To learn more about the signs to look for in loved ones you can visit the MDHHS website on problem gambling.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a gambling addiction you can call the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-270-7117.