Curbing College Gambling

New report proposes policies to curb and treat students' underage and excessive gaming.
September 30, 2009

A lottery ticket or an online game of Texas Hold’em might be a little bit easier to avoid than a beer at a party, but an industry-funded panel released a report Tuesday urging colleges and universities to handle student gambling much like student drinking.

In its report, “A Call to Action,” the year-old Task Force on College Gambling Policies has formulated recommendations aimed at helping institutions construct their own student health and disciplinary policies on gambling. The group was created by the Harvard Medical School-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance’s Division on Addictions and funded by the American Gambling Association’s charity, the National Center for Responsible Gaming.

A 2005 study conducted by the Division on Addictions and funded by the gaming center found that 22 percent of a scientifically selected group of 119 colleges had written gambling policies. In its press release on the report, the NCRG cites the study as the impetus behind the task force’s creation.

Christine Reilly, a task force member and executive director of the NCRG-funded Institute for Research on Gambling Disorders, said the panel’s goal was “to bring together people in higher education to help us figure out how to curb underage and pathological gambling among college students.”

Several studies cited in the report suggest that between 3 and 11 percent of American college students have serious problems with gambling that could result in academic, financial or mental health problems. A 2003 study found that 42 percent of college students had gambled during the previous year.

The report calls on colleges and universities to create campus-wide committees to formulate and oversee gambling policies, restricting on-campus gambling and making sure campus policies are in line with local, state and federal gambling laws. It suggests that institutions regard gambling as a mental health disorder and adopt accommodations for students recovering from gambling problems. In all, there are 10 recommendations aimed at reframing how institutions tackle gambling issues.

George S. McClellan, vice chancellor for student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said “all the recommendations are spot on” and in line with the ideas being considered and implemented at institutions across the United States.

For colleges to effect real change in students’ attitudes, he said, they must adopt “an ethical and consistent framework on gambling,” something suggested in the report. “If the college takes lottery money to fund scholarships, if it takes gaming money to support scholarships, if it allows the licensing of its logo on poker table … then there’s a gap between what we say and what we do and students will head through that in an eyeblink.”

McClellan also applauded the report’s treatment of students’ gambling problems as more than just a disciplinary matter. “There’s always a rush to punish students with gambling problems, but we also need to get help to the students who need it, who are dealing with real issues of addiction that may manifest themselves just as gambling or as problems with alcohol and drugs, too.”

A decade ago, McClellan co-chaired a National Association of Student Personnel Administrators task force on college gambling with Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, executive director of that group. Their effort, she said, was unable to gain much traction or funding because “people didn’t see it as a big enough problem and many colleges and universities had no idea such widespread gambling was going on.”

Dungy said she hopes the report’s recommendations will motivate institutions to survey their students so “we can find out how much gambling is really going on at colleges and what the impact is on students’ lives.”

One difference between the effort 10 years ago and this one is the involvement of the industry-funded NCRG, which has supported multiple studies on gambling problems among teens and twenty-somethings.

Though the American Gaming Association in effect paid for the task force’s work and supports her institute, Reilly said the industry and the research efforts it funds are “completely separate with all kinds of firewalls to ensure there’s no undue influence of the industry.”

Kristi Wanner, a task force member who is gambling project graduate assistant for the University of Missouri-based Partners in Prevention, said she “never got the sense there was an industry agenda” guiding the group’s deliberation. “It was an academic agenda, the idea of helping students who develop these problems,” she said. “I felt very free to comment and to put in my 2 cents even if it wasn’t something in line with the industry.”

Pointing to efforts to curb underage and excessive use of tobacco and alcohol that have been funded by those industries, McClellan said it’s always problematic when industry groups fund research to curb risky behaviors involving the use of their own products. “There’s not a right or a wrong,” he said. “I have participated in programs where I have been funded by the industry … and when I thought the money came with strings, I couldn’t do those projects.”

After reading through the task force’s report, he thinks the task force’s assessments and conclusions do not suggest there were strings attached to NCRG’s funding. “But there really should be a sentence or two that says, ‘By the way, the gaming industry really is targeting these young people and they’re responsible too.’ For me, that’s the acid test.”

Even so, he said, “when Harvard comes to the table and says there is a problem, people usually start to pay attention,” and he hopes that will be the case with college gambling.


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