UPDATED: Michigan’s Problem Gambling Calls Have Nearly Doubled. But Is Online Gambling Truly To Blame?

Written By Matt Schoch on May 4, 2021

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect current and accurate problem gambling data numbers provided by the state of Michigan.)

Multiple reports last week stated that calls to the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline were up sixfold in February, compared with the same month in 2020.

Online gambling launched this past Jan. 22, meaning February 2021 was the first full month Michigan residents could bet on the Super Bowl from their phone or play slot machines on their home laptop.

It’s logical to link the two, and there’s no doubt increased exposure to gambling will create problem gambling issues here over time.

But we are not to that point yet, according to the manager of the Michigan Problem Gambling Treatment Program.

Oh … and those numbers were wrong, anyway.

563 gambling-related hotline calls in first month

This past February, 563 gambling-related calls were placed to the problem gambling helpline. According to initial reports, in February 2020, 93 calls were placed, a figure reported by multiple outlets.

Lori Mello, the state’s problem gambling program director, told Detroit’s FOX2 that online gambling wasn’t yet the root of the spike.

“We’ve got to be careful about the online gambling. That’s going to come later, I’m pretty sure,” Mello said. “But the idea of we’re getting more calls just because of online gambling … that’s not the case.”

Mello added that many of the 1,312 total calls in February were not for problem gambling.

“They think ‘problem gambling’ means they’re having a problem with the website, or how they’re gambling, or the game,” Mello said.

The Lansing State Journal also published a version of a problem gambling examination last week, citing Michelle Malkin, a doctoral candidate studying the subject at Michigan State University’s school of justice.

“The only thing that could really [explain] thisis (sic) the growth of online gambling. Because that’s really the only big change that’s happened in Michigan,” Malkin said of the rise in calls.

The Associated Press picked up the story.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told PlayMichigan that information provided to the Journal was wrong to begin with.

Because a staffer used too narrow of a definition for “gambling-related calls,” the February 2020 number was under-reported. Instead of 93 calls, there should’ve been 289 reported. As a result, the year-to-year jump was nearly double, not more than six times.

“So that resulted in a comparison that was not apples-to-apples,” spokesperson Bob Wheaton wrote in an email. “That issue was just discovered this week.”

Wheaton said the department would notify the outlets.

Digging deeper into the hotline numbers

PlayMichigan obtained a detailed look at call numbers from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The March numbers present the potential for more worrisome headlines. Through the first 14 days of the month, hotline workers already logged 493 problem gambling-related calls.

Of the March calls that did specify a type of gambling associated with the issue, 11 of the 51 calls specified “internet” gambling.

Of the 1,312 overall calls to the hotline from February, 123 callers said they were referred to the number from social media and 59 from other media. The ‘other’ category logged 1,036 calls.

Of the 1,135 March calls to the hotline, 122 were logged as calling the wrong number.

Mello: For now, spike in calls not coming from problem gaming

PlayMichigan reached out to Mello for full context on the numbers earlier Tuesday, and she verified her position.

In an email, she noted the increase in calls are “not problem gambling-related in most cases right now.”

“The calls that are coming in to the Helpline right now since online gambling was legalized are calls that are about how to play the games, other technical questions about the websites like FanDuel or DraftKings, questions about which credit cards these sites will take. Issues like that,” Mello wrote. “Right now, people are not calling to say they are playing online and they are having a problem, and they need help or resources.”

“What I said was that I expect that will change, and we will eventually begin to get calls about people having problems such as debt and relationship and work issues as a result of online gambling.”

Brian Hatch, a responsible gambling advocate and host of “All In: The Addicted Gambler’s Podcast,” said any rise in calls is alarming.

The Michigan native said he saw a handful of posts on a problem gambling online forum shortly after launch where Michigan residents quickly fell into problematic behaviors.

“Addiction is weird,” Hatch said. “It’s going to build up as it sees fit.”

Online gambling has also brought exposure to number, treatment

Experts and industry insiders agree that Michigan’s growing online gambling options will lead to more instances of problem gambling down the road.

But for now, in a vacuum, the current market might also be adding more exposure for online gambling solutions. The publicizing of the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline number is one example.

The PlayMichigan Twitter account, which has more than 1,000 followers, has had 1-800-270-7117 in its bio for months.

Every television commercial for BetMGM, social media ad for DraftKings and podcast ad read for FanDuel, has the hotline number, or 1-800-GAMBLER, in the material.

The number is often in small type, but it’s present most everywhere. If anyone is looking for one of the first steps in treatment, they can find the number to call.

Looking around the country, Tennessee saw a similar spike of calls after its Nov. 1 launch last year before calls drastically dropped months later.

The pair of online gambling laws in Michigan guarantee $1 million annually to the Compulsive Gambling Prevention Fund. The helpline number must be present on all platforms.

Not all responsible gambling programs experiencing high volumes

Not all gambling resources point the way to the problem gambling number.

One specifically created for the online gambling industry is barely getting any traction so far.

The Michigan Gaming Control Board has set up a Responsible Gambling Database, where residents can voluntarily self-exclude themselves from online sports betting and/or internet gaming for one year or five years.

Applications became available in late February for the program, but only five residents have applied, MGCB spokesperson Mary Kay Bean said Friday.

The board is reviewing three of the applications. Two other applications were returned because of missing information.

Bean said individual operators have their own exclusion tools. Results of those measures are not part of the MGCB count.

BetMGM among operators joining problem gambling fight

Although more should, could and will be done, gambling operators are taking steps to help curb problem gambling.

During March, which is Problem Gambling Awareness Month, major operators made announcements for their initiatives.

Among them:

  • FanDuel partnered with Gamban, which blocks gambling sites from customers who self-exclude.
  • BetMGM announced it will fully integrate GameSense into its platform later this year. The British Columbia Lottery Corporation program provides innovative tools and support for responsible gambling habits.

Michael Burke, president of the Michigan Association on Problem Gambling, says operators should do more. The gambling addict turned responsible gambling advocate told PlayMichigan last year that he’d like to see an operator fund an in-patient treatment center modeled after the CORE facility in Shreveport, La.

Much to celebrate in Michigan’s early online gambling days

After online gambling launched Jan. 22, Michigan has seen a surge of new tax revenue from internet gaming and strong interest in online sports betting.

In February, the first full month of online gambling, internet gaming operators paid $14.0 million in state taxes and payments, while Michiganders made $301.9 million in sports bets.

Through March, $35.6 million in state taxes and $10.5 million in new revenue for Detroit was raised from internet gaming. Nearly $1 billion had been wagered online and through Detroit casinos on sports.

Michigan lawmakers chose to go through with expanded gambling options, knowing full well there was a price. Like any addictive behavior, there are pitfalls to such windfalls.

State program manager: ‘We’re very hopeful’ when someone calls

More hotline calls will mean problem gambling-related issues are on the rise. But it also provides evidence of identification of those issues, and that treatment is available and on the way.

Mello also said there’s a silver lining to the surge.

“Actually, we’re very hopeful, and we’re always happy when someone calls us. Because that means that we’re going to help them,” Mello told FOX2. “The challenges are not over, not by any stretch of the imagination. But we’re there to help and give hope to them.”

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Matt Schoch

A Michigan native, Matt has worked at newspapers in Michigan, Missouri and the Virgin Islands. A versatile sports reporter, Matt has covered sailing on the Great Lakes, cricket in the Caribbean, high school and pro playoffs, and the Olympics in Rio. He's also the host of the Locked On Pistons Podcast and producer of a documentary on Emoni Bates. A former blackjack dealer, Matt has studied the industry from all sides.

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