A dear friend of mine recently told me, “There is no such thing as responsible gambling for me. The only responsible type of gambling that I can do, is no gambling at all.”
Insert voluntary self-exclusion program here. Self-exclusion programs serve as an important tool of assistance for individuals seeking to abstain from gambling in the United States and around the globe. A system that has unfortunately not been universally applied across jurisdictions, it provides a vital safety net, and yet the current infrastructure leaves much to be desired.
The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) states “2 million U.S. adults (1 percent) are estimated to meet the criteria for severe gambling problems in a given year. Another 4 million to 6 million (2 percent to 3 percent) would be considered to have mild or moderate problems with their gambling.” And those estimates might be conservative.
In reality, the U.S. federal government and many states have never made a significant investment researching the prevalence of gambling addiction. More worrisome, research suggests that with the massive expansion of sports wagering and online gaming happening, prevalence rates are potentially increasing. Honestly, the number of persons struggling is irrelevant to this discussion, as we know people have and do struggle, and there must be supports in place to assist. Self-exclusion is one of those vital instruments.
This is not a new concept to anyone in the gambling ecosystem, as self-exclusion programs have been around for decades. They have and continue to vary in their presentation. In the past five years or so, we have increasingly seen the gaming industry challenged on its commitment to foster these conversations and advancement of programs.
One of the initial questions that remains a part of the conversation surrounding self-exclusion, is this truly a “tool” needed in the industry’s proverbial responsible gambling toolbox? Secondarily, does self-exclusion work as an effective means to an end in addressing gambling addiction? Thirdly, what role does this industry need to play in managing these programs?
First and arguably most importantly, we need to make a seismic shift in the language that we use. We need to begin by removing the term “responsible gambling/gaming” from anything related to voluntary self-exclusion (VSE). Someone looking to utilize voluntary self-exclusion is way beyond any responsible gambling tool or program.
We need to separate and foster an appreciation and understanding about the difference between “responsible gambling” and “problem gambling.” It is an all-too-common theme recently that the industry substitutes one term for the other. Someone looking to utilize voluntary self-exclusion has likely suffered a tremendous amount of harm from gambling and needs to abstain from it. Self-exclusion is an important program for an individual who is struggling with a gambling addiction or has the potential for their gambling to become problematic.
Back to the premise at the start of this article, the only responsible thing the person seeking VSE needs to be doing, is not gamble. It’s now become a hardship for them, and this program needs to help them achieve just that. Individuals seeking to be placed on a self-exclusion list are likely, not always, suffering from an extreme problem or addiction.
Self-exclusion works when designed and deployed correctly, because it holds both the customer and the operator accountable, and with the regulator playing a vital role in the process. The regulator can and should increasingly play a more expansive role with the use of technology and across platforms to link operators within a market, while simultaneously providing the safety net for the customer to be protected across multiple operators.
Shockingly or maybe not shockingly so, like gambling regulation in the United States, each state gets to decide how to address this topic of self-exclusion. In some jurisdictions, the attention to self-exclusion is limited in scope at best, and in some non-existent. The question should not be “Does it work?” or “Should we do this?” The question must evolve to, “We know this works,” when it is done appropriately, so how do we achieve just that?
Hundreds of thousands of Americans are currently utilizing self-exclusion programs across the United States, yet, they remain vulnerable. With so many variances, it’s impossible for patrons to know where they are and are not excluded. Some operators chose to have exclusion pertain to their business in all their operating jurisdictions, other operators will allow for patrons to be excluded in one state and not another—and this doesn’t account for people who exclude with one state-operated list but then can cross into another state and gamble without issue.
The list of variances and nuisances goes on and on and on. In many states, the program unintentionally is acting as a barrier and hinderance to entry in its current iteration. The programs can be overly complicated and cumbersome, filled with hard-to-understand “legalese.” The state of Michigan, for example, was only offering until recently a self-exclusion program with a single option—a lifetime ban. Imagine this scenario: Someone is at a breaking point in their life, being valiant in admitting that they’re in need of help. Simply forecasting to the next day can seem daunting, let alone being asked to commit to something for a “lifetime.” An absolute thing like a lifetime ban is a sure way to not have patrons invested in the program.
Another state holds four different self-exclusion lists, one for each type of gambling, and requires someone to complete forms, interviews, and other items to get on each separate list. There is no coordination or sharing between these lists. Another U.S. jurisdiction has no state-run list; lists are not mandated and are maintained by each operator at their discretion, requiring a person to enter every single establishment to ban themselves.
Besides being potentially triggering for individuals, this further complicates the process, as no operator shares their list with any of the other operators in that market. Some states even go as far as to require an individual to declare themselves mentally ill and an “addict” with no control to get on a VSE list.
There have been too many stories to count from individuals trying to do the necessary and right thing by getting themselves on a list, only to be met with hostility, placed in a room to be interrogated and ostracized by a security guard while trying to understand the implications of what it means to “self-exclude.”
Treating vulnerable persons like criminals or degenerates when they have made such a profound and noble statement of bravery in admitting that they need help is certainly no way to treat another human being. There remain a great number of outdated beliefs and misconceptions around who needs a self-exclusion program and how to best deliver the program.
In a dream scenario, the customer and the operator can overcome the challenges, stigmas and perceptions of a self-exclusion program. The fantasy scenario looks like a universal self-exclusion program, communicating across multiple jurisdictions. In this scenario, a single program would be held and run by an educated and objective third-party entity. This group would have trained professionals that can assist someone in need understand the implications of a self-exclusion program, what it means both in the short and long term, and how to get on and off the list.
Better yet, while learning about the list and how to get on it, those trained individuals would be able to provide the patrons information and resources for support for the continuation of care as they begin their journey to abstention from gambling.
While dreams are great, and vitally important for innovation, the industry lives here and now in a world that will not see a centralized system anytime soon. This is due in part to a pragmatic approach to how a national-level program would operate from a host of logistical, legal and political challenges standing in the way.
It’s also due in large part on how the federal government chooses not to address gambling addiction in general. A VSE program can and should exist well within the current state-by-state regulated infrastructure. However, the grander opportunity requires coordination between regulatory agencies to even come close to achieving the fantasy. The likelihood of states sharing information and data between lists is highly unlikely. In some cases as noted, it is a challenge to get states to have operators share lists within their borders.
An ideal structure should be where each state controls the list, where individuals who look to get on the list are able to access it the same way that they are gambling. This means that if one gambles online via their phone, they should be able to apply for self-exclusion in the same manner.
While not all states have embraced mobile as a form or registration, payment or play, technology can greatly advance the VSE cause by adding a level of support, verifying identity, but also offering the privacy to exclude on one’s own terms. This would offer individuals seeking to get their name on the list an easier avenue and terms of the agreement that are easy to understand.
Persons looking to access this resource should not be treated like criminals, and instead with respect and empathy. No one should have to declare to the government or private entity that they have a mental impairment, addiction or illness to get on the list. It should be more than sufficient to request admission while only being questioned if they understand what getting on the list means, whether they understand what happens if they break the agreement, if this is really what is best for them, and if they are doing it of their own free will and committed to it.
For so many, VSE is the first step to health and happiness in what has likely been an insalubrious and extensive journey filled with harm from gambling. To take it one step further, it is not enough to merely ensure people can enter onto a list easily and with dignity and respect. They should also be presented with a plethora of options to getting additional support for their struggles thereafter, should they so choose to pursue them.
While support continues to be a real challenge for many jurisdictions, that is a conversation for another day. What we can do today is create and set a robust baseline of standards and best practices for self-exclusion and the essential supports. Self-exclusion could certainly become one of the most powerful and impactful tools that we have to start substantially addressing this issue of gambling addiction.
This is not a matter of “if” it works. It is a matter of how to make it work better so more individuals will have access to it. The industry—from regulators to operators to customers—is not doing enough. Not even close to it. We have a collective responsibility to address this very important problem. All of us, collectively. We aren’t utilizing technology nearly enough, we aren’t thinking about the person struggling to ease the burden and better support them, we aren’t doing enough information sharing across jurisdictions.
We can all agree, the type of customer the industry should seek to retain is an individual that enjoys gambling as the form of “entertainment” it was designed and intended to be.
Let us all ensure that folks who need help are able to access it with ease, respect, and empathy. It takes a village to do so many things. The village of all the stakeholders in the industry needs to bear the responsibility to ensure self-exclusion is available for all those that seek it.