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opinion | Stephen Crosby

A data-driven understanding of gambling

(istockphoto/globe staff illustration)

Now that the people of the Commonwealth have determined that the state’s casino law will remain in place, it is particularly important that the public — proponents and opponents alike — understand some of the unique aspects of the legislation.

A key feature of the 2011 expanded gaming law was to establish a research plan to assess the social and economic impacts of casino gambling in Massachusetts. The research establishes a comprehensive baseline followed by repeated and equally comprehensive longitudinal analysis. Much of the debate about casino gambling is based on anecdotes, self-interested research, and mythology — both pro and con. This project will identify and make public to policy makers and researchers alike a deeply analytic understanding of the true economic and social consequences of casino gambling in Massachusetts. After a competitive procurement, we selected a team made up of researchers from UMass Amherst, University of Nevada Las Vegas, University of Lethbridge in Alberta, and the UMass Donohue Institute that has undertaken this massive research project, at a cost of $5 million in its first two years.

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The first phase of the project is to establish the baseline conditions of virtually every social and economic variable that might be affected by casino gambling, before the casinos open. These variables include the most obvious potential negative consequences, problem gambling and traffic, but also will establish a baseline condition for issues like domestic violence, job starts, crime rates, property values, demand for social services, bankruptcy, and many others. Researchers are analyzing a 10,000-sample survey of Massachusetts residents that will provide detailed information about gambling attitudes and participation, and the number of Massachusetts residents with a gambling problem. All this information will be public.

Once the gambling facilities open, we will repeatedly review all these critical data points to determine whether the introduction of casino gambling has had social and economic impacts — for good or ill. And for each community in Massachusetts, information about each of these conditions will be available on the Gaming Commission’s website.

Two other projects will complete the research agenda: One study will track 2,600 individuals over at least five years, to assess how people increase or decrease their gambling risk profile, move in and out of problem gambling patterns, share problem gambling with related behavioral problems, etc. Another will anonymize all player card data and make it available to researchers worldwide to study gambling behavior in detail.

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But the project does not stop with the research. The Legislature and the governor also directed that this research database be used to inform the efforts of the Gaming Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to raise awareness about and to prevent and treat problem gambling. Once the new gaming venues are fully operational, the legislation provides $15 million to $20 million annually for research, prevention, and treatment programs — an amount that represents nearly 40 percent of all the money spent on problem gambling in the United States in 2012. Each year, the Gaming Commission, in collaboration with the Department of Public Health, will present recommendations to the Legislature to continually improve the expanded gaming law with respect to its social and economic impacts.

The Gaming Commission takes as its priority for implementing the Expanded Gaming Law that we maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impacts. We are committed to a data-driven understanding of the consequences of expanded gaming, particularly in the area of problem gambling. We are executing on a policy designed by the governor and the Legislature, and overseeing a genuinely unique project to identify and track all of the social and economic consequences of expanded gaming in Massachusetts, and to ameliorate, as quickly as possible, any of its possible harms. We hope that this will reinforce the enthusiasm of the 60 percent who voted in favor of casinos, and reassure the 40 percent who voted against.

Stephen Crosby is chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.