Jan 9, 2024 - News

Calls to Virginia's problem gambling hotline are soaring

Photo illustration of two hands reaching out to each other, with abstract shapes and old telephones.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

It's never been easier to legally gamble in Virginia — and experts say that means Virginians have never been at greater risk of developing a gambling problem.

Driving the news: Calls to the state's problem gambling hotline spiked 788% between 2019 and 2022, Capital News Service reported last year.

Why it matters: Problem gambling is on the rise nationwide, driven largely by the proliferation of legal sports betting, according to experts, Time magazine reported.

An increase in problem gambling is already prevalent in Virginia, Hawley tells Axios.

  • The state helpline has seen a shift in the demographics of callers in recent years, correlating with the increase in gambling options.
  • Historically, callers to the gambling helpline tended to older men who were placing bets in person. These days, callers tend to be 18-25-year-old men, she says, who do much of their gambling online.
  • "We're seeing a much faster acceleration than in the past," she says, with callers identifying a problem within a year or less since they started gambling.

Worth noting: The majority of calls to the helpline are not from folks seeking help. Of the 7,790 calls the helpline received in the first 10 months of 2023, only 764 were from folks seeking help with a gambling problem.

  • The rest were from out-of-state or folks calling to complain about a broken machine or losing play.

Yes, but: The Council considered those calls the first step toward seeking help as it found the majority of people who end up asking for help have called the hotline before.

  • Intake calls — calls from folks actually seeking help with an addiction — were up 143% between 2019 and 2022, per Virginia Mercury.

By the numbers: Virginians wagered $5.1 billion on sports last fiscal year, exceeding the state's projections, Virginia Mercury reported.

For the most recent month available, Virginians bet:

Flashback: Five years ago, there were three legal ways to gamble in Virginia: the lottery, horse races or a charitable game that benefited a nonprofit or other qualified organization.

  • Between 2019 and 2020, the state legalized three more ways to gamble: sports betting, casinos and historical horse racing, a la slot machines in Rosie's Gaming Emporiums.
  • Meanwhile, slot-like skill games started cropping up in convenience stores and gas stations across the state and flourished amid a three-year court battle to ban them.

What we're watching: Skill games are currently illegal, but the industry is planning a major push in this year's General Assembly session, which starts tomorrow, to legalize them again, Virginia Mercury reported.

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