Sports betting is easier than ever and gambling addiction experts are worried

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White Coat Black Art26:30Sports Betting Addiction

These days it’s hard to avoid sports betting ads, with Wayne Gretzky and Auston Matthews coming through your TV screen, or billboards and bus ads rushing by you on the commute.

That has addiction experts concerned that newly-loosened sports betting laws and the accompanying ads could create challenges for current problem gamblers, and create new problem gamblers from a young age.

Noah Vineberg, 48, says it certainly hasn’t been easy for him. He calls himself a compulsive gambler in recovery, now celebrating four years of abstinence. And he says he’s thankful he didn’t have to deal with the influx and ease of sports gambling before he stopped. 

“You can’t sit down to watch anything on TV and get through an hour without watching multiple gambling ads,” said the father of four in an interview with White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman.

Vineberg, who lives in Ottawa, started gambling in high school, through a form of parlay betting called Pro Line, which is betting that involves correctly predicting at least three different events to receive the pay out.

But now, there are many more options.

Noah Vineberg, a compulsive gambler in recovery who lives in Ottawa, says he’s gambled away around $1 million. (Brian Goldman/CBC)

Changes to sports gambling laws

In 2021, the federal government made it legal to gamble on individual sporting events, giving provinces the ability to regulate it themselves. 

Before that, six provinces allowed parlay betting. The 2021 bill allowed for single-game bets, such as the outcome of the Super Bowl. 

Ontario became the first province to create a regulated sports betting program, which launched in April, and with it came the onslaught of ads. Even if you change channels during the commercials, sports broadcasters are talking about it during games, which, for sports fans, makes it nearly impossible to avoid.

And experts say the way sports gambling has evolved is dangerous, too. 

David Hodgins, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Calgary and co-ordinator with the Alberta Gaming Research Institute, says slot machines and casino games are some of the riskiest forms of gambling because they provide instant results. 

People who struggle with problem gambling are the highest risk of suicide, [more] than any other addiction​​​​​.– Amanda Laprade, gambling counsellor

Sports gambling has evolved to become much like slot machines, he said. People can now bet on minute details of a game, not just its results, giving people that same constant source of gambling as when they play the slots.

“You can bet online, 24 hours a day, on multiple different types of sports,” said Hodgins. 

“It’s becoming more like slot machine betting in terms of being very fast paced. So there is a concern that that will be problematic for some people.”

He says there’s also a sense that people can get good at it, and improve their ability to make bets. 

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The damage

Vineberg said he’s ashamed to admit what he’s done to make sure he had money for the next bet, but said talking about it is part of his recovery. He’s borrowed money from family that he never paid back, committed credit card and insurance fraud, and even stole, he said.

“I’ve done robberies that didn’t involve hurting people, but that was the rationale in your head. Back then, nobody gets hurt, but at the end of the line, somebody’s always getting hurt,” said Vineberg. 

“I could rationalize anything to make myself be able to play.”

Vineberg compares it to living a double life. He’d call in sick from work as a bus driver just so he could focus on making bets; he even had a separate bank account and would get some of his pay put into that. 

“Once I stopped the bus with people on it and ran into a bar to see the final shot of a game that I was waiting to have a big outcome on,” said Vineberg.

Sometimes he would win, but that money would be gone just as quickly. He figures he’s lost about $1 million to his gambling addiction.

“I’ve won giant amounts and then turned around and blown it, playing video blackjack on the toilet and it’s just nonsense,” he said.

Avalanche of ads

The inundation of ads has Amanda Laprade concerned. She’s a problem gambling counsellor at Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services in Ottawa. Her clients who have sports gambling addictions tell her the ads have become more aggressive than they’ve ever seen before.

And she says that with hockey legend Gretzky and actor Jamie Fox showing up in these sports betting ads, she’s also concerned about who might be affected. 

“I’m concerned that that’s going to be geared toward younger and younger generations. And then I’m going to end up seeing those people later down the road,” said Laprade.

Amanda Laprade, a problem gambling counsellor at Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services in Ottawa, says there needs to be more regulations around sports betting ads. (Brian Goldman/CBC)

“When we see these celebrities who look like they have it all, it’s like, ‘well, if they can do it, then I can do it.’ I think that’s really misleading, and it’s dangerous,” said Laprade.

Laprade said the dopamine the brain receives while someone is waiting for the result of a bet, such as a player hitting a shot or a goalie making a save, is just as powerful as when the result actually happens. That’s what makes it so addictive.

But Vineberg said his mind wouldn’t dwell on success in those moments. Instead, he’d be thinking about the next bet. 

“I have already in my head … another 100 bets that I want to play with the amount of money that’s going to come out if that actually goes through the hole,” said Vineberg.

Time for change

Laprade believes sports betting ads should be regulated. She uses the United Kingdom as an example, which saw an uptick in addictions following the legalization of sports betting. There, government decided to prohibit sports betting ads before 9 p.m. 

Laprade said that saw a reduction in young people getting addicted to sports gambling.

“I think that Canada needs to be a little bit more progressive in that way and kind of shifting how we’re supporting folks who struggle with problem gambling,” said Laprade. 

She also suggests educational ad campaigns, similar to those by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to show the dangers of sports betting and gambling.

According to data collected by Statistics Canada in 2018, nearly two-thirds of Canadians aged 15 or older reported gambling in the past year, and 1.6 per cent of gamblers were considered at a moderate-to-severe risk of problems related to gambling. 

A slot machine is pictured in this file photo. Professor David Hodgins says sports betting has become similar to playing slot machines at the casino, with the ability to constantly bet during a game. (Dean Gariepy/CBC)

But Laprade says those risks are still very important to consider. 

“People who struggle with problem gambling are the highest risk of suicide, [more] than any other addiction,” said Laprade.

She says this is because of the devastation and loss that can happen, even without people’s families knowing. 

“It can be debilitating, and in the mind of a person who gambles, how they know how to get out of the hole that they’re in is, ‘well I’m going to continue to gamble to try to win back my life.'”

Vineberg said he considered taking his own life, at a time when he owed $75,000. But he was able to recover through a program at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare in Windsor, Ont. That’s why he says changes are important, so more people don’t end up facing a similar crisis.

He doesn’t believe gambling should be abolished, “but programs have to be there and you can’t inundate everybody [with ads] without some sort of safety net,” he said. “I mean, what this is going to be in five to 10 years is scary — it really is.”



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