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IN-DEPTH: "Hidden Addiction" in spotlight one year after internet gambling legalized in MI

Industry and state brought in millions of dollars, more people calling the gambling helpline
Internet gambling
Posted at 12:30 PM, Jan 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-25 07:10:00-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Gambling is nothing new to the state of Michigan. It started with horse racing in 1933, before eventually expanding to casinos with card games and slots, and, in 2020, sports.

Then, one year ago, the Michigan gambling industry went all in.

Lawmakers gave the green light to gamble online in January 2021, helping the state hit the jackpot but putting compulsive addictions on high alert.

You've seen the commercials and the billboards along the highway — even if you don't participate in gambling, you can't escape it. Whether you like it or not, gambling is now a part of your life.

For some, like Michael Burke in Portage, gambling is nothing new.

“My gambling started out in Vegas of all places," Burke told FOX 17. "We’d go once a year. It was fun; I had plenty of money; I had a great law practice, so money was never an issue.”

Like all other addictions, however, that activity went from casual to catastrophic.

“After three or four years, I found myself in a position I had never been in before," Burke said. "I was broke, and I owed a lot of people money.”

So, Burke dipped into his client's Escrow account and took out a check to pay people back. At the time, he viewed it as a simple, short-term solution. In reality, it was a gateway to greater problems.

“I kept taking more money out of the account, more money out of the account, until finally it was all gone...$1.6 million," Burke said.

Burke would eventually turn himself in to the authorities. As a result, in the very courtroom where he practiced law for a quarter of a century, he was sentenced to three years in state prison.

“The gambler stories are always the basically the same story," Burke said. "The game might be different, the amount of money gambled might be different, but the devastation to the individual gambler and the devastation to the family is just unbelievable.”

FOX 17’s full interview with recovering gambling addict Michael Burke

Burke's story is more than 20 years old, but it's one that still applies today. Now that you can carry a casino in your pocket, it's more relevant than ever.

On Jan. 22, 2021, Michigan became the 15th state to legalize online gambling. Since then, five more have joined.


However, increased access means an increased risk.

In the '90s, the National Opinion Research Center found anyone living in a 50-mile radius of a casino was twice as likely to become a problem gambler. Now, instead of 50 miles, that casino is a foot away from your face.

“It's just so convenient and safe for people to be able to gamble from their device," said Henry Williams, executive director for the Michigan Gaming Control Board. "They don't have to leave home.”

It's not just how you're gambling that's different but also who they're targeting.

Alia Lucas, the Gambling Disorder Program Specialist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), said, “Quite honestly, what we're focusing our prevention efforts towards now are individual as little as middle school, high school and beyond.”

For the industry, and the state, all these changes have translated into quite the payout.

Commercial and tribal casinos in Michigan reported a combined $1.1 billion in earnings last year strictly from online gaming and sports gambling.

After taxes, $209 million went to the state, $59 million to the city of Detroit, and $22 million to local governments.


Sports gambling stats.png

Only a small fraction — $1 million — went to the Compulsive Gaming Prevention Fund to help problem gamblers.

“What you want to look at is not just the amount of money that's allocated to this... for together this order but how do we use those funds?" Lucas told FOX 17.

Part of it supports the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline.

In December 2020, the month before online gambling went live, that helpline took 218 gambling-related calls. In February, the first month after, that number more than doubled to 563.

READ MORE: Calls to Michigan gambling helpline spiked in February, 1 month after online betting began

The yearly breakdown shows a similar trend. There were 1,591 calls to the helpline in 2020, and more than 3,640 in 2021.

It's a remarkable increase, but one that leaves us with more questions than answers, according to Lucas.

“I think it's going to take a little more time before we're able to actually use the numbers as a definitive measure to determine if this increased access to gambling is significantly increasing or propelling gambling disorder activity," Lucas said.

Still, the MDHHS isn't taking any chances.

For people who call the helpline, they are immediately connected to a master-level clinician.

Right away, that clinician goes into crisis prevention mode, assessing the caller for a possible gambling disorder.

They will ask a series of 17 questions, such as, "Do you find yourself lying about the amount of gambling you do?" or "Are you gambling more to cover for your losses?"

If the caller answers yes to five or more of those questions, they are flagged as a problem gambler and directed to further treatment.

“We then reach out to our clinical panel to find a clinician that's in their area, and set them up with the clinician to start their counseling sessions," Lucas said. "They're able to have up to 12 clinical sessions with the clinician to help them with their gambling disorder.”

Surprisingly, the 3,640 calls to the helpline in 2021 only translated to an additional 104 treatment referrals.

That slight increase highlights the stigma surrounding what Lucas calls the "hidden addiction."

“People won’t often acknowledge that they have a gambling disorder, because it's perceived as an issue with lack of control and a lack of self-discipline," Lucas said.

The National Council on Problem Gambling reports gambling has the highest rate of intentional suicide out of any other addiction at 20%.

Burke is on the board for the NCPG and said more needs to be done.

“With my case, I never called the helpline," Burke said. "I didn't think I was as sick. What does that tell you about the people who are calling it? They need help.”

The MDHHS, MGCB and state lottery recognize that and meet monthly to address it. One of their main focuses right now is messaging.

“What happens if we have more money to put into our media campaigns to just increase the prevalence of our messaging as well?" Lucas asked. "Not to counter but just to make sure, 'Yeah, you can do this, but if you need help, you can also reach out to us for help as well.'”

Lucas, Williams and Burke wanted to make it very clear — they're not against the gambling industry. They just want to help people play responsibly and offer resources to those who can't.

If you or someone you know is struggling with a potential gambling disorder, have them call the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-270-7117.

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