Gambling causes social problems . . . wanna bet?

September 20, 1998|By Steve Chapman

LEGAL GAMBLING brings out the latent puritan in many Americans. The right detests gambling because it promises something for nothing. The left hates it because it enriches corporations by emptying the pockets of the gullible lower classes.

Everyone seems to detest legal gambling -- everyone, that is, except the public. Americans spend $51 billion a year on various games of chance -- twice as much as they spend on movies, plays, operas and spectator sports combined.

Report on vice

Now gambling's place at the table is threatened by the puritans, who've used their political muscle to help establish the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. They hope its June 1999 report will prove their claims that gambling wrecks lives, stimulates crime, mercilessly exploits human weakness and sustains itself through bribery and corruption.

A review, then, and a brief refutation of their best arguments:

* People Become Addicted to Gambling: The critics warn of an exploding epidemic of addicted gamblers, but a recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions argues against this notion. An estimated 1.6 percent of American adults will become pathological gamblers, compared with those who become drug addicts, 6.2 percent, or alcoholics, 13.8 percent.

A study published last year claimed that the legalization of casinos causes an increase in suicides. Indeed, Nevada's suicide rate is the highest in the country, double the national average. But New Jersey, home of Atlantic City, enjoys the lowest rate. Mississippi, a gambling Mecca, falls slightly below the national average.

* Legal Gambling Fosters Crime: Exhibit A for the prosecution is Atlantic City, which went from being No. 50 among American cities in crimes per capita to being No. 1 after the arrival of casinos. This increase fails to account for the city's huge influx of tourists, who on any given day outnumber residents by more than 2-to-1. As noted in a study by University of Maryland Professor Peter Reuter, homicides barely increased at all, despite the influx of outsiders, and assaults rose only about as fast as the average daily population. The real increases have come in robberies and aggravated assaults.

Elsewhere, though, it's impossible to detect any consistent relationship between the existence of casinos and the prevalence of lawlessness. Jeremy Margolis, who headed the Illinois State Police when the state introduced 13 riverboat casinos, has testified that "crime has not been a problem." Looking at rural Colorado, Texas A & M scholar Patricia Stokowski found that with the arrival of casinos, "the likelihood of becoming a crime victim in Gilpin County has decreased."

* Legal Gambling Causes Corruption: Casino operators are portrayed as the Typhoid Marys of political corruption, the usual evidence being their lavish bankrolling of politicians. But of the 16 industries that gave "soft money" to the two major political parties in 1996, the gambling industry ranked 16th, according to the ultrafastidious Center for Responsive Politics.

Casino owners are right to take a greater-than-average interest in the workings of government. 1) Until recently, their industry was illegal almost everywhere. 2) They cannot operate without hard-to-get government licenses. 3) Their many enemies want to legislate them out of existence.

Lottery rip-offs

As long as we're talking about corruption and exploitation, we should not forget that the most wicked gambling sharpies don't live in Las Vegas but in the state capitals, where the lotteries are headquartered. The lotteries' pitiful payout -- about half of all money wagered, compared with 92 percent or so at your average casino -- rightly draws cries of outrage. If the critics were interested in remedying the lotteries, they'd have the states repeal their monopolies on these games and let the market compete away the excess profits.

* Whose Life Is It, Anyway?: Gambling's opponents never tire of reciting statistics and anecdotes to suggest that the costs of legalized gambling dwarf any possible benefits. But they fail to count the central benefit -- the diversion and pleasure it provides to millions of people.

Until 1978, casinos were accessible only to people with the means to travel to Las Vegas. The relaxation of prohibitionist laws has brought them within easy reach of most of the U.S. public, which has voted with its feet. The overwhelming majority of these patrons gamble responsibly and impose no burden on their fellow citizens. They treat games of chance as exactly that -- games.

Yet critics insist on portraying gamblers as a pitiable class of suckers, enslaved by fantasies of unearned wealth. It's hard to see why. Most people who patronize the lottery, the track or the slot machines end up poorer, with nothing to show for the transaction -- which is also true of people who eat in restaurants and attend concerts.

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