60 Seconds with John Welte

In a recent study, Welte, a senior research scientist at UB’s Research Institute on Addictions, compared rates of problem gambling in the U.S. between 1999-2000 and 2011-2013. What he found was a surprise: Despite an explosion in gaming opportunities during that period, the percentage of Americans who were problem gamblers remained stable. Moreover, overall participation in gambling actually decreased. We talked to Welte about these counterintuitive results.

John Welte

A new study by John Welte has shown that despite an increase in gambling opportunities, rates of problem gambling have remained stable. Photo: Douglas Levere

“Our results show it is clear that U.S. residents are gambling less often.”
John W. Welte, Senior Research Scientist, Research Institute on Addictions

Interview by Michael Flatt

Why didn’t the presence of more casinos lead to more gambling?

My best guess is that the economic downturn that started in 2008 suppressed gambling.

Are there any other explanations?

In the public health model of gambling, there’s this controversy between “exposure” people and “adaptation” people. The exposure idea is that the more exposed you are to gambling venues, the more likely you are to be a problem gambler. The adaptation hypothesis suggests that when there’s an increase in exposure to gambling venues, the immediate response will be an increase in the rate of problem gambling, but that will trail off and perhaps even decline when people adapt resistance to it.

How do you know people who took your survey told the truth?

The answer is that you don’t. But there’s no reason to assume that people were less honest or less accurate in 1999 or 2000 than they were in 2011-2013. So presumably those inaccuracies would cancel out.

Does online gambling have an effect on gambling addiction?

Our studies have shown that online gambling is indulged in by a fairly small percentage of the population. We did find that a high proportion of online gamblers were problem gamblers, but those same people were doing a whole bunch of other types of gambling. So it wasn’t necessarily that online gambling was causing the problem gambling.

Will problem gambling rise when the economy improves?

I’m less eager now to assume that more gambling opportunities will lead to more problem gambling, but there’s still a large amount of evidence that supports that connection. My data has pointed me in two different directions. My answer to that is a definite “maybe.”