(NEW YORK) — Tvonia Thomas said that scratch-off lotto games were consuming every aspect of her life in Virginia.
Even though she rarely won big jackpots, Thomas told ABC News Live that the rush of going out to the convenience store for those tickets was stronger than the urge to eat a meal.
“It feels like your heart’s going to explode, but you love it,” the recovering gambling addict said. “You don’t know what’s going to be behind that glitter that’s underneath that ticket.”
Thomas is not alone. Some addiction specialists say more people are fighting these extreme compulsions for scratch-off tickets and that state officials need to step up to curb the problem that they say disproportionately affects minorities and low-income players.
A 2022 nationwide investigation of state lotteries by the Howard Center For Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland found stores that sell tickets are disproportionately clustered in lower-income communities in nearly every state where the game is played.
The Tax Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, said approximately 60% of state lottery earnings go directly to the winners.
Les Bernal, the national director for the nonprofit group Stop Predatory Gambling, told ABC News that while states use the revenue from lottery sales to fund services like education, they are doing so off the backs of low-income residents.
“This is definitely a form of systemic racism that has occurred,” he said. “They have shifted the tax burden away from middle-class taxpayers [and] from property.”
Billy Hoffman, a gambling counselor, told ABC News that even if they don’t win, gambling addicts still have the compulsion to seek out more attempts at the jackpot.
“They’re trying to find a way out, and it just gets them further and further in the hole,” he said.
Thomas said her addiction got so tough that she had suicidal thoughts. Eventually, she secured a scholarship to an addiction recovery program at Williamsville Wellness in Virginia.
“On the first day, it was like a breath of fresh air. I was saved from myself. I didn’t have the opportunity to gamble,” she said.
Lottery critics have called out states for failing to distribute revenue to necessary public services and programs to fight gambling addiction.
The Virginia Lottery, which uses revenue from games to fund public schools, received a “D” grade in 2022 from the nonprofit group, The Education Law Center, for how it allocates money to high-poverty districts.
In a statement to ABC News, the Virginia Lottery said it, “has a proven track record of working to raise awareness of problem gambling and gambling addiction, going far beyond what is required by law to do.”
“While Virginia law requires all lottery profits to go to K-12 education, the lottery has been repeatedly recognized as a leader in the industry when it comes to using its resources and high public profile to raise awareness and encourage responsible play,” the Virginia Lottery said.
Hoffman said that more lottery profits need to go to help people who are battling addiction.
Thomas agreed, and urged others who are struggling with these compulsions to seek help.
“It wasn’t about the money, it was about the continuing to play and to escape and to be in my dream world,” she said.
If you need help with a gambling problem reach out to 1-800-Gambler. If you are having thoughts of suicide or other mental health crisis call or text 988.
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