A few months after the launch of online gambling, Michigan is moving into the next phase in the sector’s natural timeline. Part of that process is continued management of problem gambling and increased promotion of responsible behavior.
That’s one of the main issues on the plate of Henry Williams, who stepped into the job last month as executive director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board.
Although the MGCB is just the regulator, it can play a key role in identifying problematic behavior, a charge that Williams says is a priority for his tenure.
The former social worker, who is board president of Detroit Recovery Project, spoke with PlayMichigan about where the state goes from here.
(Editor’s note: If you have an issue with problem gambling in Michigan, call 1-800-270-7117.)
Williams: ‘Problem gambling is serious’
PlayMichigan: You’ve worked with the gaming control board for more than 20 years, but before that you were a social worker. Did you come face-to-face with problem gambling much in that role?
Henry Williams: Absolutely. Currently, I sit on the board at Detroit Recovery Project. It’s a nonprofit here in the city of Detroit. We deal with a range of addictions. Gambling is absolutely one of the areas that we are strongly looking at.
As a social worker over the years, as a protective services worker, as a probation officer in the past, I’ve seen what problem gambling can do to a family. I can recall a case where I was protective service worker, and the allegation was there was no food in the home. When I went out to do my investigation, I met with the mother.
One of the things you do is verify there’s no food. You’re looking in the cabinets, you’re looking in the refrigerator, and there was none. I asked the mother if there’s any funding, any money. And she said, “Yeah, I had $30 and I went to the casino to try to double it.”
So yes, problem gambling is serious. And there are people out here who are suffering, their families are suffering, and I want to ensure that we’re doing everything we possibly can do to help families.
PM: How do you envision the role of the Michigan Gaming Control Board in combating problem gambling and encouraging responsible gambling?
HW: I do believe that the gaming control board has a role. Of course, we’re not the treatment arm for problem gambling, but there are additional resources that we can provide to the citizens.
Some of the things that I have in mind starting now is definitely updating our programs — brochures with what services the gaming control board offers today for problem gamblers. We’re looking to do some public service announcements produced by the gaming control board into the market.
And also, I’m looking to expand our problem gambling staff … so we can also provide speakers for groups to talk more about the self-exclusion services that the agency offers.
How additional MGCB money toward problem gambling would work
PM: When you talk about PSAs in addition to the ones already put out by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, would funding for that come from the MGCB’s budget?
HW: The funding we provide to the DHHS is in statute, so they would always receive those funds. This is in addition to what the DHHS is going to provide. We’re also collaborating with them, along with the (Michigan) Lottery and the attorney general’s office.
We’re all working together to hopefully have a more unified approach to problem gambling here in the state. So we’re really looking forward to collaborating with those other agencies.
PM: Would all the parties in those discussions be within the state government’s umbrella, or will you look to collaborate with outside groups like the private sector, such as the gambling operators or licensees, or the Michigan Department of Problem Gambling?
HW: We would definitely seek out their guidance on some issues. The DHHS will be our connection to other services that are offered around the state. We just want to assure that we’re providing the citizens with as much information as we can. Location of group meetings, helping citizens identify if they have a problem with gambling … we really just want to give the citizens the tools and the resources, and just really express upon the citizens that gambling is for entertainment purposes only.
It’s not for someone to try to double their money, it’s not for your to use your income that’s for your rent, mortgage, car notes, utilities, your basic living dollars. When you begin to use those dollars for gambling, there’s a problem. And we want to help citizens recognize when they have a problem.
PM: When you have your regular meetings with other directors of the MGCB, is problem gambling an issue that is the most discussed issue, is it somewhere near top of the list of topics, or does it not come up very often?
HW: It’s definitely at the top of what we discussed, especially as we launched online gambling and more citizens have access to gamble by the cell phones or computers or tablet. It’s definitely at the top of our discussions and at the top of the list for our board chair, Mr. (Robert) Anthony. Him and I spoke the other day regarding problem gambling, and what we can do as an organization to ensure citizens have the information they need.
Campaigns to help recognize gaming issues
PM: There will likely be what former representative Brandt Iden called “clean-up legislation” down the road for online gambling, as is natural for big policy changes. How would you recommend things change for gambling laws as it relates to Michigan problem gambling?
HW: One thing that we’re discussing with different legislators now is the opportunity to put together an informational piece that (as) each of the legislators sends out their constituents’ updates, they would have information from the gaming control board as it relates to problem gambling that they can include in that literature.
PM: What kind of information?
HW: Resources that might be available and how to identify problem gambling signs. If you see someone doing it, especially as it relates to young people.
We would hope that our young people are not online gambling, but it’s not like the commercial casinos, where we can stop them from entering physical property. When it’s occurring online, and they have access to someone’s information, that’s more difficult to regulate.
But we want parents to be able recognize when they see certain signs that their kids are gambling.
The ongoing work to curtail problem gambling
PM: Now that there is regulated gambling in Michigan, do you expect that the gaming control board and the attorney general’s office might work to crack down on offshore gambling operators?
HW: Unfortunately, when we talk about offshore gambling, that really falls under the lap of the federal government. However, the gaming control board, we have an anonymous 800-number that citizens can reach out to us if they see certain things online, or if they see certain things at the commercial casinos that they can alert us to, we can pass that information on.
We are meeting with the attorney general’s office and the Michigan State Police and the local FBI offices, and we will continue to share information with each other and try our best to deal with the offshore and illegal online betting. But the federal government says the difficult part about offshore betting is there are countries where these companies or individuals are set up that aren’t very cooperative with the United States in cracking down on offshore betting.
PM: Are there techniques or things done in other states that the MGCB is keeping an eye on to combat problem gambling?
HW: Absolutely. There’s a regulatory roundtable of executive directors across the United States that meet. We discuss all these different options, what each of us are doing throughout our particular states, especially as it relates to problem gambling. There are great ideas out here that we’re taking a look at, and hopefully we can institute those here in this state.