The word gambling is historically synonymous with games of chance, like slot machines, table games, and lotteries, but it also includes games of skill, like darts, pool, or fantasy sports. Although most people who gamble do so recreationally, around 5% develop gambling-related problems during their lifetime. This 5% accounts for as much as 33% or more of all spending on gambling activities. Gambling-related problems include inability to control one’s impulses, lying about gambling, and attempting to win back losses, risking deeper losses.
People with four or more gambling-related problems are said to have a gambling disorder, the only officially recognized behavioral addiction. Approximately 1-2% of the population experiences gambling disorder.
Most studies on gambling-related problems have been conducted in countries like Canada, Sweden, and Australia and focus on treatment or genetic and cognitive factors related to this addiction. One reason there is less US-based research is that it is difficult to find funding outside of industry sponsors, like casinos. The National Institutes of Health do not afford gambling disorder the same level of concern as other addictive disorders.
Internationally, people most likely to develop gambling-related problems are poor, young, and uneducated males. Because American military recruits are predominantly poor, young, and male, there has been some research in this population.
Service members experiencing depression, alcohol dependence, and legal problems were the most likely to experience gambling problems.
M. Shayne Galloway and colleagues surveyed 1,553 US National Guard Members from Ohio between 2015 and 2016 and screened participants for gambling problems, asking questions about difficulty quitting, lying about gambling, and preoccupation with gambling.
Approximately 8% of participants experienced gambling problems during their lifetime, slightly higher than the general population. Service members experiencing depression, alcohol dependence, and legal problems were the most likely to experience gambling problems.
Why did these guard members experience higher rates of problems? The Ohio National Guard deployed soldiers to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. Many people who are deployed to a combat zone or experience high stress during a deployment develop depression and alcohol problems. It could be that the soldiers in this study continued to experience the effect of their deployment and used gambling as a method of coping.
Overall, a lack of research funding has important implications for the public health impacts of gambling in the US. Until gambling-related problems are recognized as a widespread public health concern, we will not fully understand the trajectory of gambling disorder and its damaging effects on mental and physical health.