Dismantling the sports-betting ban: A mental health gamble


The Supreme Court decision to overturn the federal law that prohibited state-sanctioned college and professional sports betting is bad news for clinicians who treat patients with addictions.

On May 14, the high court ruled 7-2 that the 1992 law, called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), was unconstitutional. Now every state is free to operate, sponsor, promote, license, advertise, or authorize gambling for any college or professional sport–based event.

Optimistic outlooks on the death of PASPA include the foreseen opportunity by the states to tax and generate revenue on such gambling. Proponents of the ruling also argue that illegal activity that thrived on sports betting will now end.

But to what extent will either of those scenarios benefit the public?

If passage of various state marijuana laws is any example, assumptions that legal avenues will usurp illegal enterprises are flawed. Also, taxation likely will generate a large sum of revenue for each state. But those revenues might be offset by subsequent changes that will be needed in mental health, addiction, and wellness programs – a difficult proposition given the opioid epidemic already overburdening the country. Remember the tobacco cases and promise of state support for education, treatment, and other noble activities? Addiction medicine specialists worry that taxes collected by the states, and promises to prevent and treat gambling problems – and prevent addiction – will not end up in those coffers.

As clinicians, perhaps our most important contribution to the debates on this ruling lies in raising awareness of pathological gambling as an addiction disorder.

Redefining the act of gambling

Breaking down previous barriers to access and increasing convenience to gambling undoubtedly will be associated with increased pathological engagement in gambling. This conclusion is clear, based on past national experiments with substances of addiction (such as alcohol prohibition).

Since the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, and our increased understanding that addictions need not have prominent withdrawal syndromes, we have focused on addiction as a fatal attraction. Psychiatrists and other clinicians made the case – in some quarters, at least – for sugar, sex, and Internet compulsivity as addictions. Compared with those addictions, the evidence was clearest and most compelling for pathological gambling as an addiction disorder. Indeed, gambling disorder was introduced in 2013 to the DSM-5 as the very first non–substance-based addictive disorder. This was a decisive change, as it recognizes that gambling is more than an environmental hazard for those suffering from dopamine-driven obsessive-compulsive-like dysfunction (the DSM section where it had lived previously). Instead, gambling acts as an agent that can initiate a usurpation of the brain’s reward circuitry. (In addition, this change has reopened the door for other increasingly recognized non–substance-based disorder categories such as video game and pornography addiction, and others.)

Gambling disorder certainly fits well into what many experts view as the essential phenotype of any addiction: Continued use despite harm, waning self-control over engagement, a craving state, and compulsive use. Current research is expanding rapidly and filling in the theoretical framework, strongly supporting gambling disorder based on biological evidence. Much of what we now know about the biology of addiction has been through the efforts of the Yale University–based research group, led by psychiatrist Marc N. Potenza. Dr. Potenza and his colleagues have been investigating gambling disorder in a thorough manner (Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2015 Mar-Apr;23[2]:134-46) and (Curr Treat Options Psychiatry. 2014 Jun 1;1[2]:189-203). Indeed, gambling disorder is much like the other substance-use disorders in which it is grouped, in that it has been found to share some similarities/pathways common to all addictions while also carrying its own specific nuances.

Twin studies have unearthed a wealth of information, such as knowledge that environmental factors seem to be the predominant source of the comorbid development of gambling disorder with the more socially acceptable substances as associated use disorders (alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana) through mechanisms such as peer association and place preference conditioning. Similarly, genetic influences also might be meaningful to treatment. For example, one finding showed that patients with gambling disorder and a family history of alcoholism were found to more preferentially respond to opioid-receptor antagonists as treatment for gambling disorder, compared with individuals without such family history (Psychopharmacology [Berl]. 2008;200[4]:521-7).

Explorations of neurotransmitter involvement and brain connectivity also have been conducted for gambling behaviors. Dopaminergic underpinnings of addiction have been particularly indicated in imaging studies focused on the ventral striatum and other components of reward circuitry. In addition, functional MRI studies have identified both overlapping and discordant brain imaging findings between gambling and many other substance use disorders such as cocaine. All these indicate that gambling seems, like its use-disorder counterparts, to follow a similar but distinct course of hijacking reward systems and priming the brain to seek out further gambling in a pathological manner.

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