Breaking Down Virginia's Gaming Landscape

Breaking Down Virginia's Gaming Landscape

Balancing expansion with responsibility.

    Most common forms of gambling reported by helpline callers (VCPG)

In recent years, Virginia has witnessed a significant expansion in its gaming industry. From sports betting and online lottery to casinos, historic horse racing machines, and live events, the landscape has evolved, offering new avenues for entertainment, revenue generation, and charitable contributions. However, amid this growth, there's an emerging concern that deserves our attention: the rise of gambling addiction.

The soon-to-be-legalized skill games will be turned on again come July 1 in a convenience store near you, despite my opposition, unless the Governor vetoes or amends the legislation. While gaming expansion has undoubtedly brought economic benefits, job opportunities, and support for charitable causes, it has also opened the door to a surge in gambling addiction.

In fact, according to the recently released 2023 annual report from the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling (VCPG), skill games rank as the third most common form of gambling callers to the VCPG helpline report that they struggle with, after slot machines at casinos and racetracks and sports betting. Even with the pending legalization legislation, skill games remain one of the riskiest forms of gambling, as unlike gaming machines in casinos, race tracks, Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums, and qualified social organizations, they are placed in largely uncontrolled environments in our communities where there is dubious age verification, no reliable self-exclusion program or security requirements to protect players and the businesses that will host them. In addition, while in the current bill ABC licensed locations and truck stops are limited in the number of machines that can be in any one location, other establishments have no limit whatsoever. Perhaps most egregiously, unlike with other expansions of gaming in the Commonwealth, like the Lottery, casinos, and Rosie’s Gaming emporiums, voters will not have the opportunity to opt-in to allow skill games in their communities. As a result, for this and many other reasons, I did not agree to sign the conference report on the bill to legalize skill games that was sent to the Governor. 

According to statistics, approximately 2-3% of US adults, or 4-6 million people, grapple with problem gambling. Unlike substance abuse disorders, gambling addiction manifests as an impulse-control disorder, compelling individuals to gamble compulsively despite adverse consequences on their lives and relationships. As gambling opportunities have expanded and changed in recent years, so too have the demographics of the most impacted Virginians. While gambling disorder can affect people of all ages, ethnicities, races, and genders, historically, callers to the gambling helpline tended to be older men who were placing bets in person. These days, callers tend to be 18-25-year-old men who do much of their gambling online. This is alarming, as young people are at an increased risk; data shows the earlier someone starts gambling, the more likely they are to develop a gambling addiction.

Left untreated, gambling addiction can wreak havoc on various aspects of an individual's life, including family dynamics, work performance, and financial stability. Alarmingly, those struggling with gambling addiction are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to individuals grappling with other common addictions.

Despite these sobering realities, there is hope. Problem gambling is treatable, and effective interventions exist to mitigate its harmful effects. In Virginia, the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling has been at the forefront of promoting responsible gambling practices, offering education, support, and treatment resources to those in need.

The Virginia Council on Problem Gambling operates a confidential and toll-free helpline (1-888-532-3500) available 24/7, witnessing a notable increase in calls, underscoring the growing demand for assistance. The helpline received a total of 10,608 calls in 2023, a remarkable 973% increase from 2019. Callers who are asking for treatment have spiked 200%. According to Dr. Carolyn Hawley, President of VCPG, people with gambling addiction generally seek help at low rates: just 5% nationwide end up in treatment. However, Virginians who reach out to the helpline are receiving treatment with a clinician at a rate of 29%, and of those who are then referred to the Virginia Partnership for Gaming and Health, 70% are meeting with treatment providers and 75% are meeting with a peer recovery specialist. As we navigate Virginia's evolving gaming landscape, it's incumbent upon us to acknowledge and address the public health ramifications associated with gambling addiction.

March marks the 21st year of National Problem Gambling Awareness Month, and the second year of its observance in Virginia as a permanent fixture in our public health calendar. Last year, my legislation was enacted to establish the Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Advisory Committee, fostering collaboration between prevention and treatment providers and gaming operators to combat problem gambling. Also actively underway is the Joint Subcommittee to study the feasibility of establishing the Virginia Gaming Commission, created by my 2022 legislation, and on which I serve as the Vice Chair. One of the key areas of study is how a single agency overseeing gaming in the Commonwealth might have a more focused and coordinated approach to problem gambling prevention and treatment. 

As we embrace a gaming-friendly future for the Commonwealth, let us remain vigilant in safeguarding the well-being of our residents and addressing the challenges posed by problem gambling.

If you or someone you know is struggling with gambling addiction, know that help is available. Visit to access online chat support or reach out to the confidential helpline at 1-888-532-3500 for assistance.