In a spectacular example of closing the door after the horse has already run off, the city of Springfield now has a new program to collect data on problem gambling, also known as compulsive gambling — nearly a year and a half after the MGM Springfield Casino has opened.
The city’s Health and Human Services Department accepted a $150,000 state grant earlier this month to hire two community health workers to collect data about problem gambling in the city. Eventually, a report will be released on negative behaviors associated with gambling and will point to needed resources to combat it.
While relatively little research has been done about the health effects of gambling, a study published by the American Association for Suicidology from the late 1990s suggests that cities with a casino experience suicides at a 2- to 4-fold rate of similar-sized cities without them.
The time to gather this data was before the 2011 gaming bill was passed in the state Legislature, which allowed casinos into the state. Or, failing that, before the Springfield casino was approved by the city in a July 2013 vote. At the very least, so that a baseline could be established, even doing a study prior to the August 2018 opening date would have been helpful. Residents already traveled to casinos in neighboring Connecticut, so there would have been data available.
Instead, Springfield created its Office of Problem Gambling in May of 2019 — nearly a year after MGM Springfield opened — according to Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris. Its purpose is to identify problem gamblers and find out the negative effects that gambling can have on the local community.
It is a worthy cause to determine negative effects of gambling, and the cultural and emotional (and monetary) costs of this type of behavior, which some label as addictive, and it is a good thing that Springfield has such an office and was able to get this grant.
But where was the thought about collecting this information at a time when it actually could have been useful in preventing a huge exacerbation of this health problem? Instead, the Legislature — wooed in the aftermath of the Great Recession by potential state revenue and the promise of some jobs — passed the gaming bill without this vital information. So we don’t know what percentage of that revenue is likely coming from people who are gambling beyond their means.
Meanwhile, the Legislature hasn’t even been able to pass a three-year study bill on Medicare for All in the state, which could potentially lead to more complete and affordable health coverage in the state. A sweeping health care funding bill including such a study, which passed the Senate late in 2017, died in the House.
Late though this funding is for data collection on compulsive gambling, I am happy the city is putting resources toward information gathering, and I eagerly await the results of the report. While these data collectors will not offer any treatment as they do their work, the ultimate goal will be to link people who are experiencing problem gambling with resources that can help.
As with tobacco — another industry that, like gambling, amasses huge profits at the expense of the well-being of its customers — knowledge of the harm being done can lead to public education campaigns, which in turn can help steer people away from this unhealthy behavior.
At the same time, this program Springfield is taking advantage of is only considered a pilot program, and could expire after a year, though Caulton-Harris hopes it will last longer.
Investing in our health — mental and physical — as a state should be more of a priority than it is. State revenues from casino profits taking advantage of vulnerable populations need to be weighed against human costs. Learning about those costs — in advance — is essential.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.