Impacts of gambling in Pennsylvania to be explored

Woman gambling online.
Credit: Erik McLean/

ABINGTON, Pa. — Penn State researchers are exploring unknown territory when it comes to gambling in the state of Pennsylvania.

Glenn Sterner, assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Abington and coordinator of the Greater Philadelphia Office of the Criminal Justice Research Center (CJRC), has been awarded a contract through the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) to assess impacts of interactive, online gaming in Pennsylvania.

With help from Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) and the Survey Research Center (SRC), a telephone survey that allows participants across the state to share their experiences with interactive gaming, better known as online gambling, will be conducted. The project establishes a sustainable relationship for yearly data collection and will include an annual report of the findings.

These annual reports have potential to become part of evidence-based policy.

“While working in conjunction with SSRI, we plan to pull on expertise and present results of reports and assessments to policymakers in Harrisburg,” Sterner said. “We have the ability to utilize the strengths across Penn State, integrating resources from an interdisciplinary perspective, to provide needed knowledge to DDAP for ways to target prevention and intervention initiatives to address any issues we may find.”

Additionally, Sterner’s research may be more relevant in Pennsylvania now than ever. Mikael Ahlgren, teaching assistant professor of hospitality management and director of gaming initiatives for Penn State, points out the timing of this project.

“Since Pennsylvania has very recently legalized online gaming, we are in a very unique position attempt to measure and monitor the impacts,” Ahlgren said. “We are in the early stages, and there is much to be learned.”

Ahlgren said that the effects of problem gambling may be consequential, despite the monetary benefit, which yields to a debate on if the income is worth the risks of problem gambling and if the risks can be mitigated.

“The casino industry brings approximately one and a half billion dollars of tax revenue to the state on a yearly basis,” he stated. “That said, some residents pay a particularly severe toll for these benefits that are enjoyed by the collective, and it is our duty to begin by making an assessment of these costs as new means of gaming are made available.”

Rachel Kostelac, a representative for the DDAP, is hopeful Sterner and his team can produce evidence-based research that may guide policymakers grappling with the unknowns of problem gambling.

“This is the first time Pennsylvania has had a probability study focused solely on problem gambling,” Kostelac said. “This report could show the need for changes to the prevention or treatment systems already in place, expansions of treatment and prevention, and potentially even a need for more funding related to prevention or treatment.”

“When it comes to understanding the effects of gambling in general, it’s not an area that’s widely researched, but it provides opportunities,” Sterner said.

One of these opportunities is learning how to keep the commonwealth safer.

According to Kostelac, there are certain stigmas associated with victims of problem gambling, which can prevent those in need of help from getting it. Twenty to seventy percent of people who suffer from problem gambling consider suicide, and three percent of Pennsylvanians are problem gamblers, he noted.

“The consequences of problem gambling are largely financial related and often lead people to commit crimes that otherwise wouldn’t be at risk,” Kostelac said.

However, Sterner said this research could be preventative.

“We’re hoping to be really proactive about these issues,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re asking the right questions relevant to policymakers, and it’s our goal to develop a theoretical perspective on interactive gaming after we expand our understanding on the effects that interactive gaming has on communities and individuals."

Sterner notes that there’s much to learn before that happens.

“This is only the beginning,” he said. “We’re just really happy to start this project and potentially provide that understanding of the prevalence and impacts of interactive gaming across the commonwealth.”