About Dr Rachel Volberg, Principal Investigator SEIGMA
Interview with Dr Rachel Volberg.

Dr. Rachel Volberg has been involved in epidemiological research on gambling and problem gambling since 1985 and has directed or consulted on numerous gambling studies throughout the world. In 1988, Dr. Volberg was the first investigator to receive funding from the (U.S.) National Institutes of Health to study the prevalence of problem gambling in the general population.

Dr. Volberg is currently the Principal Investigator on the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) study. In addition to her work in Massachusetts, Dr. Volberg is working on projects in Canada to assess the impacts of the introduction of online gambling and to identify best practices in population assessments of problem gambling.

She is also a member of research teams in Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden conducting large-scale longitudinal cohort studies to identify predictors of transitions into and out of gambling and problem gambling.

You have written numerous papers on gambling and considered the leading expert in your field. Tell us more about your latest paper you’re working on?

I am working on several papers at the moment with different colleagues. Two of the papers are focused on results from a longitudinal cohort study of gambling and problem gambling in Sweden. One of the papers examines differences in the demographic characteristics and the development of problem gambling across different groups of gamblers.

The other paper looks at changes in male and female patterns of gambling involvement over time. I am also working with a graduate student in the University of Massachusetts Amherst, School of Public Health on a paper looking at different weighting procedures for population survey data.

Have you placed the occasional bet playing slot machines or table games? I guess Las Vegas, or ”Sin City” is on most people’s bucket list. Have you been to Vegas yet, if so did you have a memorable visit?

I have been to Las Vegas quite a few times but mostly to attend conferences since I am not much of a gambler personally. My most memorable visit to Las Vegas was in September 2001 just after the World Trade Center bombings. There was almost no one staying in our hotel, there was no one else dining at any of the restaurants and the cab driver actually thanked me for coming to Vegas as he drove me to the empty airport.

Gambling in the United States is huge. More often than not it is seen as a vehicle to help alleviate dwindling state coffers and aid development. How would you describe the socio-economical impact of gambling on society as a whole?

Describing the impacts of gambling on society is challenging since the impacts differ depending on the type of gambling that is being introduced, the environment into which the gambling is introduced, and when the introduction occurs. Impacts also vary depending on whether patrons are local or from outside a region and on the strength of policies to mitigate negative effects. It is also important to note that the social and economic impacts of gambling can change over time.

Along with two other colleagues, Rob Williams has written a very good report that summarizes what is known about the social and economic impacts of gambling and he notes that the most reliable impacts tend to be increases in government revenue, public services, regulatory costs, infrastructure value and infrastructure costs, and problem gambling and its related indices.

My own view is that the impacts of gambling tend not to be as bad as opponents argue ahead of time but also not as good as proponents argue ahead of time. From a research perspective, a critical issue is that so few governments actually track the impacts over time so that harms can be minimized and mitigated. That is what we are trying to do right now in Massachusetts.

A wise man (Mark Twain) once said: ”The best way to throw the dice is not to throw the dice at all”. Do you share his sentiment?

As I have already mentioned, I prefer not to gamble so I guess you can say that I share Mark Twain’s sentiment about not throwing dice. However, there are many people who enjoy gambling and I don’t feel that their preferences should be entirely prohibited. If we are going to throw the dice, I believe it is essential that governments have strong policies and regulations in place to minimize and mitigate resultant harms and that research, prevention, treatment and recovery services are adequately funded.

As an industry expert, how would you clamp down on problem and under age gambling? In other words which mechanisms must casinos employ to protect the aforementioned? On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you describe gambling addiction?

I don’t believe that minimizing and mitigating problem gambling and preventing underage gambling are solely the responsibility of casinos or other gambling operators. Instead, such efforts require collaboration among policymakers, regulators, operators, health care professionals, gamblers and their families and other interested and concerned stakeholders.

Mechanisms include broad efforts at education and prevention directed at non-gamblers and those who do relatively little gambling as well as more focused efforts to intervene with gamblers who are experiencing harm all the way through to the provision of counseling and other helping services for individuals whose gambling is causing harm to themselves and others.

I prefer not to pigeonhole problem gambling on a numerical scale since the disorder can affect individuals quite differently depending on their circumstances. Based on a comprehensive study of problem gambling prevalence rates internationally, the highest rates of problem gambling are found in Asia while the lowest rates are found in the European countries of Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany. It is difficult to say why Asian countries have higher rates of problem gambling than Western countries although it likely has to do with attitudes toward luck and fate as well as relatively recent exposure to commercial gambling opportunities.

Online gambling is the next ”new frontier”. Have you written any papers on it? To a certain extent the cyber gaming world is still very unregulated. If you ever decide to do a paper on this market which recommendation/s will you make?

I am a co-author on an article titled “Defining the Online Gambler and Patterns of Behaviour Integration” that examines online gambling in the British context. I am also working on a study of the impacts of the introduction of online gambling in Ontario.

In my own country, I have appeared as an expert witness before two federal legislative committees considering the legalization of online poker. In my testimony, I pointed out that online gambling is a fluid and dynamic market and that there is little known about the best approach to legalizing and regulating online gambling. I also pointed out that there is substantial research showing that problem gambling rates are much higher among online gamblers compared with more traditional gambling activities but that the causal relationship between online gambling and problem gambling is not well-understood.

Finally, I argued that the regulatory framework proposed by the federal government would not be very effective in protecting online gamblers from harm. In addition to self-exclusion, I noted that play management systems and self-assessment tests would be important to provide to individual players via a third-party organization rather than via the operators or the government.

Do you attend any conferences on gambling? What pressing issues are normally discussed?

I attend quite a number of gambling conferences around the world. My favorite conferences are those with a substantial research focus where I can meet up with research colleagues but I also greatly enjoy other conferences attended by regulators and industry folks as well as conferences attended primarily by treatment professionals. These are conferences where I can learn more about how my research and research by others in the field can be used to minimize the harms associated with problem gambling.

Gambling is a universal phenomena and has taken a moral seismic shift. Which country/ies is it growing the fastest? What encourages punters to gamble?

I do not feel competent to answer this question since I am a sociologist and epidemiologist rather than a psychologist.

In the United States many Christians are against gambling in all its formats. What is ”gambling creep”?

I am not familiar with this term so do not feel competent to answer. While many Christians in the United States are antagonistic towards gambling, the moral argument against gambling legalization does not carry much weight anymore. Opponents of legalization are more likely to frame their arguments in terms of potential increases in problem gambling and crime.