Corporate America has moved heavily into casino gambling, effectively elbowing the mob aside. And now the big casino operators have begun to repackage one of man's oldest vices as clean family fun.
That's the story told by David Johnston of The Philadelphia Inquirer in his new book, ''Temples of Chance -- How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. to Win Control of the Casino Business'' (Doubleday).
It's a pretty chilling picture. Mr. Johnston relates, for example, multiple incidents of teen-agers being welcome in some of Atlantic City's leading casinos, frequently plied with free drinks, and allowed to gamble freely so long as they're losing. In at least one case, a 19-year-old was turned over to police for arrest as an under-age gambler after winning a $50,000 slot jackpot.
Just since 1989, under guises ranging from historic towns to riverboats to Indian reservation wagering, casino gambling has expanded from its bases in Nevada and New Jersey to no less than 12 new states -- Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, California, Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
''So completely, and quietly, has the trend toward universal casino gambling swept the nation that few people realize that Minnesota now has more casinos than New Jersey,'' reports Mr. Johnston. What's more, officials are so desperate for fresh revenues that ''more casinos managed or owned by state and local government are a virtual certainty.''
The book ought to be required reading for any governor, state legislator, county or city official tempted to go after the ''easy'' money of casino gambling. In exquisite detail, Mr. Johnston relates how the propensity for gambling -- popular with revenue-hungry American governments ever since the days of the Continental Congress -- is spreading its tentacles and allure as market-wise corporate America gets its hands on it.
In Las Vegas, a new MGM casino will include an adjacent theme park with rides and amusements based on the Wizard of Oz. Circus Circus' Excalibur casino is Las Vegas includes huge boardwalk-like arcades for the families to play in right off the gambling floor, not to mention an area with circus and trapeze acts. Hilton Hotels, along with Circus Circus and Caesar's World, want to open a ''family entertainment center,'' anchored by four big casinos, in Chicago. Riverboat casinos up and down the Mississippi are advertised as good fun for the whole family.
Mr. Johnston argues that as reprehensible as the organized crime was when it dug its tentacles into Nevada's legalized casino business, ''its incompetence at managing a business as complex as casinos limited its profits.''
Today, by contrast, ''corporate America has access to skilled managers and it can employ the same marketing clout that sells dandruff shampoo to push casinos and create an appearance of respectability.''
Corporations love the casino game because it's one in which the house always wins. Hilton's four Nevada casinos bring it more than twice the revenues of its 264 franchise hotels combined. The Holiday Corporation that spread 1,589 Holiday Inns across America sold them off in 1990 in order to focus (under a new corporate name, Promus Companies) on its ultra-profitable casinos. Ramada Inns also shed hotels to go all- casino.
Such sell-offs are freeing the corporations to think about propagating casinos nationally and globally. ''Their goal,'' says Mr. Johnston, ''is to make gambling a routine leisure activity for most Americans, as it has become for 20 percent of metropolitan Philadelphia residents'' with Atlantic City a short ride away.
And central to it all, he alleges, ''is encouraging young adults to gamble often -- and on credit -- as the beer and cigarette companies aim to make customers for life of people just entering adulthood.''
For sheer sophistication, consider the industry's computerized ''frequent gambler cards.'' Step to an Atlantic City slot machine, insert your card, and presto! -- a screen greets you by name. Simultaneously, just off the casino floor, hosts see information about you and your betting history. Before you can even ask, a waitress brings your favorite drink.
So it is, Mr. Johnston charges, that ''the business of chance prospers'' even as ''America approaches the dawn of a new millennium, its industrial might withering.'' No wealth is created; the casinos simply ''take money from many people and funnel it to the few lucky enough to hold a casino license.''
Yet politicians keep on touting casinos as job- and revenue-producing panaceas. And voters, sadly, as often as not swallow the same line.
Is there any chance to roll back the tide? Mr. Johnston's prognostication is bleak -- he thinks we're hooked, for good. But he does offer some intriguing reforms on the margin. Examples: Ban use of credit by gamblers. Make gambling debts uncollectible and any attempt to collect them a crime. Ban gambling advertising of all kinds. Ban free alcoholic drinks that unhinge people's common sense. Fine or revoke the licenses of casinos that allow juveniles to gamble.
Given the real and present perils of compulsive gambling, state and local governments owe us no less than those minimal public safety measures. Will they take Mr. Johnston's advice? Or will the collective clout of Casino America Inc. be greater? Don't hold your breath.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban issues.