“Vermont’s Gambling Problem: Time for Ethical Policies”,

The Legislature’s decision on how to allocate funds generated from licensing and taxing addictive substances and behaviors demonstrate its commitment to Vermonters’ well-being. As the Legislature considers the act projected to generate millions of dollars from online sports betting, it should also consider the damage that gambling addiction causes, the state’s moral obligation to its citizens, and how to prevent or remediate that damage. According to reports, as many as 10 million Americans live with a gambling addiction. While most people who have a gambling addiction do not see it as a problem, only 21 percent of incarcerated individuals diagnosed with a gambling addiction ever thought their gambling was a problem.

Betway, the world’s largest online gambling firm, has revenues of $1.4 billion and profits of $255.6 million. The company has stated its commitment to remediating the addiction it enables and profits from, with charity contributions that include Gamble Aware, Trust, Bet Blocker, Red Card, Gambling Therapy, and BetKnowMore. However, its total charity contributions amount to only $370,000 or 0.0014% of profits. The state should consider how much of the projected $5 million to $10 million in revenue it hopes to harvest from online gambling will be invested in education and addiction recovery resources.

The management of addictive substances and behaviors has been an issue for governments for centuries. Governments intersect with addiction through statutory regulation, law enforcement, “sin” taxation/revenue generation, and investments in prevention, education, and addiction recovery programs. While governments are quick to regulate and tax, they perennially struggle with law enforcement, often ignore investments in addiction recovery, and see regulation and taxation solely as a new revenue source for other priorities.

Addiction is a psychological and/or physiological dependency on chemicals either introduced into the body or by certain behaviors that stimulate the body to produce chemicals on which the psyche becomes dependent. Substance addictions like alcohol, pharmaceutical and street drugs, tobacco and cannabis, and sugar and refined carbohydrates (junk food), and physiological addictions like certain eating disorders, gambling, and hypersexuality warrant regulation and treatment.

Vermont’s Title 18 addresses the possession and control of regulated drugs and tries to differentiate between street and pharmaceutical distribution. However, the enforcement level’s difference in treatment between “Dr. Feelgood” and the street-level cocaine seller suggests that Title 18’s efforts to regulate addictive substances is a catastrophic failure. As of Jan 4, 2023, among people age 12 or older in the US, 61.2 million people (or 21.9% of the population) used illicit drugs in the past year. Vermont is not immune and has seen a 33% increase in drug overdose death from the prior year.

Alcoholics Anonymous and residential treatment programs have been somewhat effective at treating those who can acknowledge their addiction, but there are not enough residential programs to deal with the volume of alcoholic patients. Vermont assesses a 10% alcoholic beverage tax on the serving of alcoholic beverages, but it’s unclear how much of the revenue it produces is used for alcoholism treatment, especially when Vermont leads the nation in underage drinking.

While Vermont has been effective at reducing tobacco addiction through education and punitive taxation, the marketing of vaping products has spawned a new threat to young people. Bills in the Legislature to ban the retail sale of flavored cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and e-liquids, and to repeal prostitution laws except for those involving human trafficking of persons who are compelled through force, fraud, or coercion to engage in sex work are adrift. Human trafficking is also a prevalent addiction issue in Vermont, with the Vermont Human Trafficking Hotline identifying 96 cases of human trafficking in Vermont since its inception, with 156 victims identified in these cases.

Obesity is perhaps the most prevalent addiction, with U.S. obesity prevalence increasing from 30.5% to 41.9% from 1999 through 2017, and the prevalence of severe obesity increasing from 4.7% to 9.2%. In Vermont, 20% of residents are clinically obese, and one-quarter are obese in terms of eating disorders. Although taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is an effective way to reduce obesity, Vermont tried and failed in 2014-2016 to pass a sugar-sweetened tax due to opposition from the beverage industry.

In conclusion, the Legislature must consider how to allocate funds generated from licensing and taxing addictive substances and behaviors to education, prevention, treatment, and recovery programs for Vermonters’ well-being. It must also invest in law enforcement efforts, regulate addictive substances, invest in addiction recovery, and ban addictive behaviors like gambling, prostitution, and human trafficking.