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Harvard Medical School Gambling Study Refutes Many Accepted Beliefs...By Hartley Henderson

Upon introducing the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, John Kyl stated the following:

"Harvard Medical School's Division of Addictive Studies likened the internet to new delivery forms for addictive narcotics. As smoking crack cocaine changed the cocaine experience, I think electronics is going to change the way gambling is experienced. And that is especially true with regard to youth, who are particularly at risk."

Kyl then went on to suggest that this is proof that internet gambling is more dangerous than brick and mortar gambling and thus online gambling must be prohibited.

That statement about the internet being likened to new delivery forms for addictive narcotics, attributed to Howard Schaeffer (the Director of Addiction Studies at Harvard Medical School ), has been quoted on numerous occasions by groups opposed to online gambling. In reality, however, Howard Schaeffer never made that statement. In a public meeting Dr. Schaeffer did state that changing the vehicle of transmission for an addictive behaviour can lead to greater addiction, but he never suggested this was the case for online gambling. Regardless, John Kyl, James Dobson and a few other anti gambling zealots took it upon themselves to make the inference.

To the credit of the Harvard Medical School researchers (HMS), they chose to institute a study to confirm or deny that assertion. The study was conducted by Richard A. LaBrie, the Associate Director for Research and Data Analysis at the Division on Addictions at the Harvard Medical School, affiliated with Cambridge Health Alliance in conjunction with Entertainment AG (a popular European sportsbook), to determine whether there was indeed a greater concern for addiction with online gambling. The study was limited to sports betting and looked at fixed odds betting as well as fixed odds in-play betting (eg. will the next pass be complete or incomplete). HMS intends to look at other forms of gambling in future studies, but this particular study was limited to sports betting. The sample consisted of all registered bettors at registered in February 2005 and looked at all bets made by the bettors (approximately 40,500) in the 8 months following. The data included information on 7.8 million bets made for a total of $61.6 million Euros. Unquestionably a sample of that magnitude is large enough to draw relevant conclusions.

HMS had no bias one way or the other and was simply trying to understand more about online betting. In particular there were 3 questions they wanted to address:

1) Who gambles on sports online?
2) What are the play patterns of online gamblers?
3) Is it possible to detect and isolate individuals with excessive patterns of play that can indicate problem gambling?

Answering those 3 questions would allow the researchers to determine whether the internet is truly more dangerous in terms of gambling addiction than is gambling in land based venues. HMS considered surveying online bettors, but actions speak far louder than words. Gamblers' self reports are often at odds with actual behaviour, including failing to remember bets, the desire to present findings they hope researchers would want to hear, etc.

The researchers looked at betting behaviour for people at consisting of the following variables:

- duration of betting
- frequency of bets
- number of bets per day
- total amount bet per day
- total amount wagered for the whole study
- net loss
- percentage loss

From those measures only 1% of the sample showed excessive gambling patterns and the other 99% from the sample bet far less. The median behaviour (i.e. the point where 1/2 bet more and 1/2 bet less, hence the midpoint of the sample) showed the typical bettor gambled about 23% of the time (approximately 2 days per week). They made 2.5 bets per day on the days they did gamble, with an average bet of 4 euros per bet. The net loss for the bettors over the period was 33 euros. The heavily involved bettors (i.e. the 1%) bet almost every day, wagering 42 euros per bet and lost over 3,914 euros over that time period.

The research data is available from HMS and was presented at the GIGSE conference, but the conclusion of the study is fairly straight forward.

The typical online sports bettor's wagering cost him/her approximately 1.2 euros per day or essentially the price of a cup of coffee. The fact they didn't wager every day indicated they weren't totally obsessed with betting and probably chose games they had an interest in (i.e. it was on TV or they were going to the sporting event). In fact, Dr. LaBrie contended that this was a relatively cheap form of entertainment, (far less than a movie or attending a sporting event) and hardly represented pathological behaviour. The heavy bettors could include some compulsive gamblers, but it was just as conceivable that they were players with a lot of disposable income and thus the bet amounts were not significant. It is also possible the larger bets were made by professional gamblers, those middling/scalping lines or players bearding for others. It must be noted that HMS is seen as an expert in identifying pathological tendencies, so the fact that they concluded the study doesn't necessarily indicate that is very significant. It should be noted, however, that Dr. LaBrie suggested more intensive study needs to be done to rule this out altogether.

So the question has to be asked: Did this study indicate that online gambling is "the crack cocaine of betting?" In better words: Did the study show that internet betting is more open to gambling addiction than other forms of gambling? It would seem unlikely. In that same year sports bettors gambled $2.1 billion in Nevada's 174 licensed sportsbooks with the books netting a profit of $112.5 million. And that is just what was bet legally in Nevada casinos. Given the number of people who visit Nevada sportsbooks in a year, it is safe to say the amounts bet in Nevada were comparable to those who bet at Bwin and no doubt 1% of those that bet regularly in Vegas are heavy gamblers that either have money to burn or are professional gamblers. As well, having spoken in the past to workers at William Hill Betting parlours in Britain it is clear that most bettors who prefer to bet there generally wager about 5 British pounds on their favourite teams 2 or 3 times a week, which is almost identical to the betting patterns for those in the Bwin study.

While it would certainly be interesting to see a similar study done with Las Vegas casinos to see if there is indeed a difference between betting patterns at a major online sportsbook versus betting at say the Las Vegas Hilton, it is almost certain that study will never occur. To do so may indeed invalidate all the rhetoric spewed by the likes of Kyl and Dobson and the last thing that the current Republican regime, Focus on the Family or other anti gambling groups want is for the public to find out that online gambling may not be as addictive as they have suggested. After all, why let the facts get in the way of an agenda? Without doubt gambling can be addictive and many families have been ruined by it. But those numbers are small indeed, far less than are those who have had their lives ruined by alcohol addiction, and no one (not even Focus on the Family) has suggested that the sale of alcohol online or at liquor stores should be stopped because of the small number that become addicted. America is a free country and laws are supposed to benefit the interests of the majority. will keep abreast of any other studies conducted by HMS, as well as any other findings or developments that arise as a result of this study.

Hartley Henderson

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