Q&A with Jeffrey Wierzbicki

‘With mobile gambling available in our state, it is easier than ever to simply pick up the phone and start placing bets,’ says leader of New York Council on Problem Gambling in WNY.

By Brenda Alesii

In the spring of 2021, the New York state legislature approved a bill allowing for mobile sports betting. An advertising blitz across the broadcast and print media soon followed, informing state residents that online betting would soon be a reality. On Jan. 9, at 9 a.m., mobile sports book sites went live, meaning placing a wager could be accomplished with just a few keystrokes on a smartphone or other device, all from the comfort of one’s home, in a bar, at the beach, virtually anywhere a device can be used.

In Good Health spoke with Jeffrey Wierzbicki, who serves as the Western team leader at New York Council on Problem Gambling. The North Tonawanda resident discussed the impact this new legislation has on our community. 

Q. Much has been written about drug and alcohol abuse; is gambling a legitimate concern and viewed in the same way?

A. Yes, it certainly is a legitimate concern and gambling addiction is frequently linked with alcohol, nicotine and drug use. We’ve found that 73.2% of problem gamblers have an alcohol use disorder and 38.1% have a drug dependency. It’s very difficult to nail down what came first, it’s the proverbial chicken-or-the-egg theory. With some of those dependencies, the problem can be overt, but gamblers can easily hide their addiction. For example, a person can be lying in bed next to their partner, placing bets on their phone, without their partner knowing any differently. 

Q. Is there a typical profile of a problem gambler?

A.  Men typically start gambling earlier than women, often due to being in competitive sports or because of peer pressure, but problems develop later. Women, on the other hand, typically start gambling later in life but develop issues sooner. Women have said that they find gambling to be an outlet for boredom, grief, loneliness.

Now, with mobile gambling available in our state, it is easier than ever to simply pick up the phone and start placing bets.

Q.  What are the most popular forms of gambling in Western New York?

A.  For people in this area, going to a casino is the most popular place to gamble, followed by the purchase of lottery tickets.

Q.  What are some of the signs of a gambling addiction?

A.   Gambling disorder is an actual diagnosis listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM. The addiction affects the brain with a high similar to what one experiences with alcohol or drugs. The following are the criteria used by clinicians:

• Needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement.

• Is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling.

• Has made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling.

• Is often preoccupied with gambling (e.g., having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble).

• Often gambles when feeling distressed (e.g., helpless, guilty, anxious, depressed).

• After losing money gambling, often returns another day to get even (“chasing” one’s losses).

• Lies to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling.

• Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.

• Relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling.

Unlike conversations parents have with children about drugs, alcohol, safe sex, the potential of developing a gambling addiction is rarely talked about. With the advent of the new law, gambling among younger people is becoming normalized. 

Q.  While it is being normalized for younger folks, are there still many elderly people who gamble on a regular basis?

A.  Yes. We have helped many older adults who faced financial ruin due to their addiction. One situation stands out in my mind. An elderly couple lost their retirement account after one of the individuals gambled away thousands of dollars. They were at the end of their rope.

Many times people realize they’ve lost control and know they need help. We’ve had people contact us in the middle of the night, sitting in a casino parking lot, desperate for help. There have been other instances in which people spend their last $20 on lottery tickets, sacrificing the purchase of diapers, food, other necessities. That type of behavior wreaks havoc on people. According to our national statistics, one in five problem gamblers will attempt or die by suicide. Among all addictions, I think the highest rate of suicide is committed by problem gamblers.

Q.  Your agency is funded by the Office of Addiction Services and Support, a state organization. When people call, are they speaking to someone locally-based?

A.  We have a network of specially-trained clinicians here in Western New York. I want to emphasize that we are not the gambling police. Our goal is to connect the client to the best resources for their particular situation. With the massive accessibility of mobile betting, there’s an awful lot of work to be done. But we’ve had many success stories, helping people overcome the addiction. There is help and hope.

Q. How can your agency be reached?

A.  Our local, confidential number is 716-833-4274. We can also be reached via email: westernpgrc@nyproblemgambling.org.