By Bria Brown

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Calls to Michigan’s helpline for people struggling with gambling addiction spiked early this year, and researchers believe the timing is linked to the start of online gambling.

The Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline received 563 calls about gambling addiction in February, more than five times the total for the same month in 2020.

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The Lansing State Journal reported that the increase followed high interest in online gambling and sports betting that launched in January.

“Casinos are at limited capacity right now because of the pandemic,” said Michelle Malkin, a doctoral candidate studying problem gambling at Michigan State University. “The only thing that could really (explain) this is the growth of online gambling. Because that’s really the only big change that’s happened in Michigan.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in late 2019 signed a bipartisan package of laws permitting online gambling. Interest has been high since.

According to the Michigan Gaming Control Board, online operators collected almost $260 million in gross receipts from January through March.

The helpline connects people with counselors and treatment options, along with information about how to spot problem gambling and prevent it.

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Alia Lucas, a specialist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Gambling Disorder Program, said the COVID-19 pandemic and the addition of online options can make it harder for people to curb problem gambling.

“With the changing landscape and accessibility to gambling, the concern now is that an individual can sit at home on their couch with their phone and gamble to their heart’s content,” Lucas said.

Online gambling has meant the state has more money to put into addiction resources. Lucas said the Compulsive Gaming Prevention Fund will get $1 million annually from online gambling and sports betting.

“We’re not anti-gambling,” she said. “There are a ton of people who can gamble and have a good time without it compromising their lives, but we want to make sure individuals are aware of the circumstances when there can be problems and what to do in the event that those issues present themselves.”

The Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline is available 24/7 at 1-800-270-7117. The service is confidential.

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