Legal Sports Betting in West Virginia Raises Concerns Among Advocates

By Paul Gaita 08/24/18

"Gambling addiction is a bigger issue than people realize in this state," said one recovery advocate.

frustrated man at roulette table

The March 2018 passage of a sports betting bill in West Virginia has many residents and lawmakers excited over the prospect of a 10% tax on gross gaming revenue, but for recovery advocates across the state, the bill has escalated concerns about the dangers of gambling dependency.

A feature in The Dominion Post, a commercial daily newspaper in Morgantown, West Virginia, highlighted concerns from mental health advocates and educators, who want the public to understand that gambling dependency carries a set of risks like any other addictive behavior, and can lead to financial and personal problems.

The feature also detailed various forms of assistance, including a West Virginia-based helpline and support groups, as tools for those struggling with gambling dependency.

The West Virginia Sports Lottery Wagering Act was fast-tracked through the state House and Senate and passed on March 9, 2018 without the signature of Governor Jim Justice, who eschewed public calls to veto the bill.

The passage of the bill allows the state's five gaming facilities to provide access to sports betting; the facilities paid $100,000 each for the right to allow betting, and according to Legal Sports Report, were expected to generate at least $5 million in total first-year tax revenue.

The measure, which was actively opposed by the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, made West Virginia the sixth state in the nation to pass a sports betting bill, after Nevada, Delaware, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

For health and dependency advocates, the passage is also cause for alarm. "Gambling addiction is a bigger issue than people realize in this state," said Sheila Morgan, director of communications and marketing for the Gamblers Help Network of West Virginia, to The Dominion Post.

The network, which was established in 2000, provides no-cost assistance to those who believe that their gambling may have reached problematic levels. Network agents assess callers and can schedule a free appointment with a dependency counselor; future appointments are at cost, but those with financial hardships can be covered by the Help Network itself.

The Dominion Post noted that the network has received more than 2,000 calls alone from Monongalia County, where the newspaper is located.

Network clients are also encouraged to find and attend support group meetings, which have shown promise in providing help to those with gambling dependency.

"The treatment of choice for addiction is group therapy," said Robert Edmundson, clinical social worker and associate professor at West Virginia University. "Only in groups can you really be with other people who you can relate with and identify with."

Mental health professionals like Edmundson take a close look at an individual's behavior when assessing the possibility of a gambling problem.

"People will often gamble money they don't have," he noted. "The cornerstone and behavior that crosses all addiction is loss of control. You're no longer in charge, it is."

Moran said that the Gamblers Help Network is currently focusing its efforts on reaching young people and, in particular, college students, for which gambling can be an issue.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.