AMERICA has witnessed an explosion of legalized gambling in the past quarter-century. All but three states permit legal wagering of some kind, from lotteries to animal races to jai alai to casino games. Total wagering in the United States reached $638 billion in 1997, a fivefold increase in just 15 years. What happens when Internet gambling Web sites proliferate?
A national commission has recommended that officials "pause" from future gambling expansion to examine the social costs. It even suggests "gambling impact statements" be drafted before government approves enlarged or added games of chance.
The group has a point. Gambling's impact on American society requires further study -- especially in such areas as crime, addiction, bankruptcies and unhealthy doses of stress and depression.
Too often, legislators buy promoters' arguments that gambling is a harmless enterprise sure to generate gushers of tax dollars for worthy social causes. Little is said about the 15 million Americans who are dangerously addicted to gambling, or the doubling of Gamblers Anonymous chapters since 1990.
Gambling supporters point to the glitter and glamour of Las Vegas without mentioning South Carolina's shameful glut of slot machines in convenience stores and gas stations. Or the corruption that has dogged casinos in Nevada and slots in New Orleans.
The National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which reports to the president June 18, calls for some sweeping moves that will not occur -- banning sports betting in Nevada and Oregon, where it is legal; forbidding anyone seeking a gambling license from making political contributions; banning casinos at racetracks.
But the panel served a useful purpose in elevating the gambling debate and raising cautionary flags. No legislature is likely to approve new gaming without taking a deeper look at these negatives.
We can't roll back the clock. State lotteries, church bingo games and horse racing aren't going to disappear. But now is an ideal time to take the commission's advice and pause to assess gambling's impact on our communities and families.
Pub Date: 6/09/99