There is often the perception that states and companies that offer gambling services aren’t really interested in preventing problem gambling. Sure, they’ll pay it lip service, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do as little as possible to actually stop people from spending money on lotteries or at the casino.
That’s part of the reason why Oregon’s problem gambling treatment efforts were so widely praised in recent years. The state lottery had produced award-winning television ads and created the Oregon Council on Problem Gambling, which had helped find better solutions to the prevention and treatment of compulsive gambling.
Unfortunately for all of those who have been helped by these programs, the Oregon Lottery is now ending all funding of these programs. And it’s not because they want to, but rather because of a ruling issued earlier this year that affects how state lotteries may spend their operating funds.
Lottery officials say that they’ve been prevented from funding the programs the way they want to because of a recent opinion by the Oregon Department of Justice. According to that opinion, the agency isn’t allowed to spend operating funds in an effort to “mitigate harms” from lottery games.
That means that the amount that the Oregon Lottery can spend on such programs has been drastically reduced. A paltry 1% of state lottery profits is given to Oregon health agencies to help treat gambling addiction, and that money will continue to be used for those services. But that money is budgeted entirely for treatment, leaving little or no money for advertising and outreach programs.
“To change course so dramatically is really kind of a sad day for Oregon,” Jeff Marotta of Problem Gambling Solutions in Portland told Oregon Live. “Oregon was looked upon as a state that’s really been progressive with the way we’ve approached issues of gambling and problem gambling.”
The problem began when Lottery Director Larry Niswender was prompted to ask the state’s Department of Justice for a set of rulings on various legal issues. When he asked about whether the lottery could spend operational funds on limiting the harm caused by gambling in the state, he received back a complex set of answers. While the opinion said that they can spend money on educating players to set limits, they could not use that money to help problem gamblers. The ruling was based on a 1994 case in which the Oregon Supreme Court prohibited the lottery from spending money on some community mental health programs.
The result is that legislators, officials and counselors are all scrambling to find ways to work around that restriction, and many in all of those camps are disappointed that they won’t be able to continue what had been effective programs, including the popular $1.5 million television ad campaign. Marotta said that when the ads ran, treatment centers would see a spike in individuals looking for help, letting them know that the ads had been doing their job.
That said, the state lottery is looking for ways to get around the prohibitions – at least as much as possible. The Oregon Lottery has already begun work on a new ad campaign, one that will stress setting limits and highlight playing for fun rather than taking the games too seriously. In addition, electronic gaming machines in the state will still feature the toll-free number of the state’s problem gambling hotline.
But while the state will still have some weapons to combat problem gambling, the ruling has left a sour taste in the mouths of those who want to help problem gamblers.
“What this says is ‘do everything you can to promote responsible gambling, but once someone crosses over, you can’t use your funds to help them,’” Marotta said. “That’s ludicrous.”