What Virginia is doing to help and where to get support

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) – From horse racing and sports betting to casinos with blackjack tables and slot machines, gambling brings billions to Virginia.

Gambling undoubtedly has economic benefits as there are more jobs and money for communities across the Commonwealth.

But out of 1,000 people who gamble, 20 become addicted.

Billy Hoffman knows what it’s like to be addicted to gambling.

“Gambling gives you hope that you’re going to make things right,” Hoffman said. “I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t.”

Hoffman started gambling at the age of 15. He played lottery, poker and other games.

“From 15 to 18 I kind of warmed up. From 18 to 30, I was all in,” Hoffman said.

He found money wherever he could. “Personal loans, business loans, sell all my stuff,” Hoffman said. “After that, the people closest to me went for the money. By the time I’m 30, I’m married and divorced twice.”

Hoffman hit rock bottom before asking for help. Now clean at 21, he dedicates his life to helping others with gambling problems.

With horse racing in Virginia, venues with slot machines, more casinos springing up and advertising attracting people, more and more people are taking a risk and betting.

“The more accessible gambling is, the more people try it, the more people become addicted,” said Warren Bickel, an addiction researcher at Virginia Tech Carilion’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

“We can become addicted to anything short, intense, immediate, strong: drugs, sex, certain types of food,” Bickel said.

And gambling.

Bickel says once someone is addicted, it’s hard to let go.

While gambling is easy to find, help for problem gamblers is not.

A quick web search of Gambler’s Anonymous turned up no meetings in central or southwest Virginia. There are private clinics, but Billy Hoffman points out that most players don’t have the money for treatment.

“If we could put together some treatment programs that the state would fund, that would be amazing,” Hoffman said.

Virginia law now requires that a percentage of the taxes that gambling operators pay go to what is known as the Problem Gambling Treatment and Assistance Fund.

To give you an example of how this works, of the more than $32 million in sports betting taxes paid in Virginia over a 12-month period, 2.5%, or about $800,000, went to the fund. Half went to prevention and the other half, $400,000, to treatment programs.

The other 97.5% went to the Virginia General Fund.

The state has set up a 24-hour hotline. In just one year, the number of calls on this line has almost quadrupled.

“This coincides with the increase in gambling that we’re seeing in the state,” said Carolyn Hawley, director of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling.

But most specialists agree that more needs to be done.

“Hopefully we don’t just do something over the phone: ‘Don’t play.’ People are going to need something more intense,” said Dr. bickel

Bickel said evidence-based programs are needed.

“That was a challenge that we saw in Virginia and we struggled with it,” Hawley said. “We didn’t have a staff dedicated to treating problem gamblers.”

But that is changing. On October 1, the state launched a program to offer treatments. Right now they need mental health professionals to become part of the network.

But is it enough?

“Obviously I’d like to see more,” Hawley said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ll be there shortly.”

This is good for problem gamblers because entering a treatment program is the best bet an addict can make with the biggest payoff – getting their life back.

“Looking back on it, I’m like, ‘How on earth?’ I’m so grateful, oh my god, I’m so grateful to be living this life today,” Hoffman said. “Because that was a hard way to live and I didn’t even know it.”

Watch our live discussion, moderated by WDBJ7’s Jean Jadhon, with peer counselor Billy Hoffman and Virginia Council on Problem Gambling director Carolyn Hawley.

You can reach the gambling hotline at 1.888.532-3500