Features

What's the big deal?

National | Is it harmless entertainment?

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

So Joe Citizen blows a few bucks on the lottery every month, and plays the ponies once in a while. What's the big deal? "The issue of gambling draws a collective yawn from most Christians," said Focus on the Family senior research analyst Ron Reno. "When it comes to issues like pornography or homosexuality, the church gets very vocal. But gambling just doesn't seem to be a big concern."

Isn't gambling just a harmless form of entertainment? Not according to experts

who study its effects on society. Cities where casino-style gambling is legal show higher rates of crime, bankruptcy, divorce, and suicide. The influence of the gambling industry on children is also an area of growing concern. A survey of Massachusetts high school students found that 1 in 20 had already been arrested for a gambling-related offense; 1 in 10 had experienced gambling-related family problems; and 8 percent had gotten into trouble at work or school because of gambling. Other research shows similar problems elsewhere.

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Gambling critics say the industry hopes to broaden its customer base-and groom future gamblers-by appealing to kids through videogames that emulate games found inside casinos. In addition, lottery promotions, like the one at McDonald's restaurants in Colorado that offered a free lotto ticket with certain meals, are easily accessible to kids.

But kids aren't the only population negatively affected by the gambling industry. State lotteries disproportionately target the poor with strategies such as beefing up lottery promotions near the beginning of the month (when welfare recipients typically receive checks), building heavy concentrations of lottery outlets in poor neighborhoods, and creating lottery ads that specifically target the poor, tantalizing them with dreams of "hitting it big."

Not that the gambling industry leaves a lot of work in its wake. Communities that embrace legalized gambling do receive lots of new jobs, tourism, and cash for their trouble. But gambling is, in the end, a black-hole industry that sucks in everything in its orbit. A five-minute drive in any direction from gambling hubs like Atlantic City, N.J., or Gulfport, Miss., reveals a landscape of waste and abandonment. Enterprises not directly supporting the gambling industries there dry up and blow away.

"Most cities that legalize gambling think they're going to be the next Las Vegas," said Mr. Reno. "But Las Vegas is a tourist town. It imports money and exports problems. We're just beginning to see research now that shows that most cities that legalize gambling will take those problems-like crime, bankruptcy, and suicide-and visit them on themselves."

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