Thursday, April 18, 2024

ECU research tackles problem gambling

Massive advertisements promoting the March 11 launch of sports betting in North Carolina are filling the pockets of our state’s radio and TV station owners.

Meanwhile, a professor in Greenville is working to understand the downsides of gambling as it becomes an approved entertainment source, with an expected $3.9 billion wagered over the coming year.

Michelle Malkin

Michelle Malkin is an East Carolina University assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology who came to Greenville in 2021. With a doctorate from Michigan State and a law degree from Northeastern University, she directs a new Gambling Research and Policy Initiative that is researching gambling trends in the state and nation as the industry explodes in popularity.

Her study of gambling behavior and risks is funded by $750,000 from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, with ongoing funded expected. The state law authorizing sports betting doesn’t mention research, but state officials realized rigorous study was necessary to know how to respond to inevitable problems.

Studies show about 5.5% of adults in North Carolina are problem gamblers, she says, even before the sports betting industry is legalized. In other states, studies show another 8% to 10% may be at risk for gambling disorder, she says. Moreover, each problem gambler’s situation affects at least three other people, including family members, friends and/or employers, she says.

Malkin emphasizes she is a researcher and not an advocate. It’s better to have legalized, regulated gambling than underground operations, she adds. “Making something illegal doesn’t stop people from doing it,” Malkin notes.

She notes a vast majority of people can gamble in a healthy way, given the prevailing view that betting is a source of entertainment. The Supreme Court in 2018 cleared the way for states to allow sports betting, with 30 states and the District of Columbia now on board, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In a Feb. 18 story, the Journal chronicled how a Pittsburgh-area mental health professional had lost $400,000 because of her gambling addiction. It also explained how industry leaders DraftKings, Fan Duel and Fanatics attract their “most-valued gamblers — by definition, the biggest losers” to continue betting.

Malkin also thinks North Carolina “is taking the right steps to regulate the gambling that is happening, but there is more to do.” The N.C. DHHS has set up a problem gambling program led by Amanda Winters. She called Malkin “a true pioneer in the field of gambling research” in an ECU News Service story in November.

Malkin is passionate about her work, calling herself one of the few researchers nationally working on these issues. About one in five of the most serious problem gamblers will attempt suicide, she says. “The reason I do this work is that I’m trying to save lives,” she adds.

The $2 million that state lawmakers appropriated annually in the sports betting legislation “is a drop in the bucket” compared with needs, she says. That money is to pay for outreach, education and treatment efforts for problem gamblers. She estimates that treating 125 people with addictions will cost about $250,000, and few insurance plans cover the cost. The state expects to collect about $70 million annually in general- and special-fund revenue from sports betting, within a few years.

While financial concerns plague some problem gamblers, Malkin notes that they also often suffer social and employment issues as their debts become overwhelming. “They wind up making difficult decisions that have huge consequences,” she says.

Malkin praises ECU for its leadership in promoting public health. “I ended up at the right school at the right time,” says Malkin. “They understood why I care about the effects of gambling in the community when few people are focused on this work in North Carolina.


David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

Related Articles