UNM’s Center on Alcohol, Substance Use and Addictions (CASAA) is recognizing a new piece of research being published in the prestigious journal JAMA Network Open. 

This spotlight centers on a critical issue– sports betting/wagering and binge drinking–led by Professor Joshua Grubbs.  

The 15% acceptance and publication rate by JAMA not only shows how elite this publication is but also how important the ties between sports gambling and alcohol misuse are to highlight.  

“The finding is important, culturally relevant, and straightforward. We knew that the finding would be relevant this time of year and, given the way that sports wagering has shifted in the country over the past few years,” Grubbs said.   

In a study funded by the International Center for Responsible Gaming, Grubbs analyzed 2022 data from over 4,000 adults across the U.S., who shared information about their drinking and gambling habits.   

“It occurred to us that heavy and binge drinking--extremely risky types of drinking-- are also probably happening with sports wagering. We had the data to see how sports wagering patterns and drinking all fit together,” he said.  

The biggest takeaway is that Grubbs has established a connection between sports wagering and binge drinking. People who gamble on sports are reporting that they also drink much more heavily than their peers who don’t gamble on sports.  

JoshuaGrubbs
Joshua Grubbs

“There are not huge differences between races on binge drinking, but there are actually pretty big racial differences in who's engaging with sports wagering, so we kind of want to account for it,” he said. “Even when you do all of that, the sports gamblers, just by the fact that they are sports gamblers, are substantially more likely to be reporting high levels of binge drinking.” 

Grubbs suspects that much of this unhealthy pattern of drinking takes place while betting, as recent research in Canada and Australia, suggests that these things often happen together. The numerous opportunities are hard to ignore here in the U.S., with 38 states and Washington D.C.  legalizing sports betting since 2018. 

“The U.S.’s approach to sports gambling has been really unique, in the global context.  Whereas most countries that have legalized sports gambling have done so carefully and over time, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2018 to let states legalize it as they wanted to. This means that we have gone from a situation where there was virtually no legal sports betting in the U.S. to a situation where the vast majority of Americans now live in a state where they can bet on sports, all in less than six years," Grubbs said. "Over the past few years, we’ve established a lot of basic findings about sports betting, but we're really trying to build on those findings and explore how sports betting relates to alcohol use in particular. Gamblers that don't wager on sports seem to be having slightly more frequent binge drinking episodes than the general public, but sports gamblers are higher than both, and considerably so."

 

“A lot of people are worried about what sports wagering is going to do to people's finances and their money in gambling problems. To be clear, those potential harms are a real concern. But, with sports gambling there may be even greater overall risks because sports gambling, even more than other types of gambling, is linked to problematic alcohol use.” – UNM Professor and Researcher Joshua Grubbs 

In states like New Mexico, casinos have rules against drinking on the casino floor; bars and alcohol sales must take place off the floor, and alcohol can’t be present while gambling. That still does not seem to provide a barrier for sports wagerers.  

“This is a tricky thing. New Mexico is one of the states that does not allow drinking on the casino floor as it is; if you want to drink in a casino, you have to go off the floor to a bar or out to your car,” Grubbs said. “Sportsbooks are set up differently, but the same rule applies. You can’t drink in the sportsbooks.  But, for most sportsbooks here in New Mexico, you can go put up your bets and then walk around the corner to the in-house sports bar, watch the game, and drink. They may be separate, but only in a nominal sense.” 

Grubbs noted that he suspects sports gambling and drinking feed off of each other. When something goes right and you win big, you might want to celebrate with a drink. When something goes wrong and you lose badly, you may take a shot to keep your spirits up. Either way, another round of sports gambling is likely following another one of these cyclical drinks.   

“I think the situation really makes it easy to drink. You're gambling on sports, you're hanging out with your friends, you're drinking and having what seems like a good time, and it creates a cycle where more alcohol makes it easier to bet more, which keeps you engaged and likely drinking more,” Grubbs said. 

These risks might be even more significant in most other states that allow sports betting via phone applications or online.   

“The general patterns that we know of are that people that bet online or via apps are riskier in a lot of behaviors. We have not yet examined if the people who are betting on their phones are drinking more than those who are betting in person at a sportsbook or via a gambling kiosk,” Grubbs said. 

As sports betting has become increasingly easy to take advantage of through mobile apps or websites, it’s no shock to Grubbs that this prevalence is part of the problem.  

“There are people that are betting before the game on very specific point spreads, on specific player statistics, and on multiple games at the same time. These people engaging in more complex bets tend to have more problems, alongside the people that participate in in-game betting,” he said. “In states that allow mobile in-game betting, they are noticing a growing number of people reporting gambling problems specifically associated with those things. There's so many little nuances we haven't even begun to study, because access to sports betting has expanded so quickly in the U.S." 

Twenty-nine of the previous states mentioned also permit legal online wagering, but that’s not always easy to monitor.  

“Every state looks different, and no meaningful federal regulation exists around it. And, even in states where there are strict rules, it may be illegal to use offshore sportsbooks, but it's not hard to access them,” Grubbs said. “Many people here in New Mexico use websites like Betwhale and Bovada, which operate offshore and have very few regulations governing them."

screenshot of betwhale mobile homepage
Betwhale

While New Mexico could benefit from the financial incentives to expand its virtual betting scenarios, Grubbs is skeptical about that road ahead.  

“One of the big recommendations I have for the state of New Mexico, as well as any state considering expanding gambling access, is to proceed with caution. If we look at expanding access at all, we need to be very thoughtful,” he said.  “At some point in the future, I think mobile betting will come to New Mexico. The logistics of navigating mobile betting will be complicated in a state like ours, but the profits available via mobile sports betting will likely convince the various casinos to at least try to move forward with it eventually. Yet, we need to be extremely careful in how we proceed because states that have legalized sports gambling via mobile applications have reported increases in problem gambling across their population.”  

“I would never, ever say that gambling is as big of a problem as the opioid epidemic or as alcohol use disorder, but it is a big enough problem that it probably warrants more systematic investigation,” - UNM Professor and Researcher Joshua Grubbs 

“I think standard regulations around gambling are helpful. Many states have pretty hard limits on how much you can bet per day, and I think that's a useful thing to do. If you limit the amount of betting, it limits the amount of time that people are spending gambling, which may then limit the amount of drinking they do,” Grubbs said. 

That’s evident at the core of sports gamblers. Those who gamble in sports embrace risk-taking with bets and other aspects of their lives. That poses a possible danger on the roads, too, no matter where the betting took place. 

“When you look at a state like New Mexico, where casinos do not serve alcohol on the casino floor, there's this notion that not letting people drink while they're gambling will help reduce harm. For a lot of people, that's probably true. But what concerns me are the ones who are already experiencing one or both problems before they get to the casino or the ones who are dealing with alcohol problems and then start gambling online. We know that gambling disorder and alcohol use disorder are often occurring together,’ Grubbs said. 

Naturally, the overall number of sports gamblers peaks during major sporting events like the Superbowl, but risky behavior for these binge-drinking betters continues beyond March Madness or NFL matchups.  

“During major sporting events, I expect both risky drinking and overall betting behaviors to be pretty high. In fact, they may be a lot higher during those events than at other times. Figuring out how those things change over time is one of our major goals for future projects,” Grubbs said. 

Grubbs says there is a lot left to learn about why these behaviors exist, starting with self-awareness.  

“Across the U.S., due to state regulations, there are a lot of responsible gambling messages and warnings that casinos and sportsbooks are required to share with people, but I think we need to consider whether or not there also needs to be messaging around alcohol use as well in those settings, especially if increasing access to sports gambling is bringing people into situations where they're more likely to drink in dangerous ways, if we know that these things are going hand in hand, we need to think about how to minimize harm,” he said.  

That also begins with a push for a federal funding source for gambling research. Grubbs points out that while designated federal research funds for drug use or alcohol misuse exist, gambling has historically not been funded at the federal level despite clear links between gambling and substance use problems. Grubbs contends that gambling is a public health concern and deserves federal funding to find ways to minimize harm and alleviate suffering.  

Even without federal funding, Grubbs still hopes to find ways to specifically help gamblers in New Mexico. 

“I hope that, over the next few years, we will be able to work with the state to understand better how to meet the needs of gamblers in New Mexico. We know from previous studies in the state that problem gambling is much higher in New Mexico than in many other states, but we don't have details on how it might be affecting drinking habits, how it might be causing problems for people in recovery from alcohol problems, or how sports gambling might be contributing to new alcohol-related problems. I want to better assess what is happening in New Mexico, and I think CASAA is uniquely situated to help understand what's going on."