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William A. Collins: Raising revenue from gambling addicts

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Grab our income,

Off the top;

From all those gamblers,

Who can't stop.

Gambling presents diverse facets. For some, maybe most, it's a well-planned form of occasional recreation. For others it is a devastating uncontrollable addiction. For still others it seems like their only chance, though a poor one, for financial rescue.

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Gaming operators are just as fractured a lot. Media hype focuses on the glitzy Donald Trump/Steve Wynn types, but the bulk of private operations are smaller, seedier halls in those few states that allow such wagering. Perhaps more common now are Indian casinos whose sovereign rights on reservations have been judged to overrule state anti-gambling laws. Some of those venues are pretty seedy too, whereas Connecticut Indians sport two of the biggest, plushest operations in the world.

But the really heavyweight gambling promoters are neither individuals nor tribes, they are state governments. With an eye for profit that makes Trump and Wynn look like nuns, many states have set up lottery sites in every convenience store and gas station. Come to think of it, if you include bingo, nuns have done pretty well for themselves too.

Anyhow, all this diversity among owners and players has made gambling remarkably awkward to regulate, especially since in many states the government gets a cut of the take. Which legislature will want to go to the wall for morality's sake by nipping its own revenue stream, or by confronting the bishop over games in the church basement? OK, Utah.

Such ambiguity has led to accommodation, and each state has made its own peace. Nevada and New Jersey live off the glorification of glitz and wager, while others treat gambling as the Devil's own playground. Still others have found ideological purity in only allowing it on boats, even those tied up to the dock. God bless.

The trouble with these debates over morality, economics and theology is that they obscure the industry's one truly serious social evil. Addiction. It's instructive to learn that while numbers at casinos are down during the recession, lottery business is up. Bad times will do that. And while it's also true that casinos act as a magnet for chronic gamblers, the heartland of addiction remains the convenience store. (And if the current keno movement succeeds, it will soon be the neighborhood bar.) Casinos are often not so convenient and require special effort to reach. Lottery sites, however, abound and act like sidewalk taverns to the alcoholic. Five to 6 percent of Americans carry this gambling gene, and that's a lot of folk.

But if it's hard for legislatures to grapple with addiction during good times, imagine their reluctance when overall revenue is down but the lottery is booming. If the scratch-off-game goose is laying golden eggs lickety-split, while all other income is in the tank, no sane governor is likely to rock that boat.

Which is scary because this is an addiction that destroys families and breeds immense suffering. To have it nurtured by state government seems appalling, especially when most such states are too chintzy even to beef up their addiction services budget. Conflict of interest runneth rampant.

So it is probably useful to draw a clear public policy distinction between the two main types of gambling. Casinos and bingo, while no doubt attracting their share of addicts, are primarily recreational. They ought to qualify as a legitimate public revenue source. But lotteries in their various forms clearly abet addiction. That's what they're designed to do. If we can't quite muster the courage to abolish them we should at least put an end to advertising them. As it stands right now all of us in gambling states have a black mark to carry on our escutcheons to Judgment Day.

Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.

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