People will go the distance to gamble - even out of state

February 25, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THAT WAS some fine study trotted out the other day by opponents of slot machines. It said that poor people gamble more than rich people. It said old people gamble more than they used to. Researchers warned that these are not good things. Here's hoping they didn't spend too much money to get such brilliant insights. They'd be better off feeding their dollars to a slot machine.

We already know certain people gamble a lot. The poor gamble more than the rich because the foolhardy among them imagine gambling is their last gasp at getting rich. The elderly like to gamble because they have more time for it than young people, and now they have more places to gamble.

You want evidence? Take a little drive up Interstate 95 to Delaware and check the number of retirees out for an afternoon's diversion. They come by bus, they come by car - and lots of them come from Maryland, a fact that gets us to the thing unfortunately left unsaid in that new study: People who want to gamble will find a way to do it, even if they have to drive long distances.

You want more evidence? Last summer, a study was done by Maryland Lottery officials for then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The study was never released, perhaps because its findings were not helpful to Townsend, who ran for governor as a staunch anti-slots candidate.

But, as state legislators wrestle with slot machine proposals in Annapolis, the arithmetic is clear: "The total number of Marylanders playing [slots] in Delaware," says the study by Maryland Lottery officials, "is about 35 percent at all three tracks in Delaware. The figure for West Virginia is about 25-30 percent at the Charles Town Raceway in West Virginia."

And the casinos of Atlantic City? "It is not too difficult to draw some conclusions that many Marylanders are visiting Atlantic City to gamble, based on the numerous bus tour operators who offer daily transportation to Atlantic City for the purpose of visiting the casinos," the study says.

The numbers are more specific in Delaware and West Virginia, based on W-2 information supplied by the Delaware Lottery and VIP registrations filed at Charles Town. And they tell us the staggering amount of money leaking out of Maryland.

Last year, Delaware's net revenue from slot machines was $565 million - and an estimated $208 million came from Maryland bettors. (Overall, $6.5 billion was wagered on Delaware slots, of which $5.9 billion - 91 percent - was returned to players in the form of winnings.)

West Virginia's net revenues from Charles Town were $182 million - with an estimated $63 million from Maryland bettors.

What's more, the study says, the argument that slots cut into Maryland Lottery revenues is untrue.

"Looking at sales in all the Maryland counties, we found no evidence to suggest there is any negative effect on Maryland Lottery sales during recent years in which there was a significant growth in Video Lottery Terminal [slots] venues," according to the study.

In other words, gambling goes on in a variety of forms, and it goes on if we have to cross the street or cross the state when the spirit moves us. As the Maryland study points out: Lottery figures continued to grow each year - even in counties nearest the Delaware and West Virginia slots operations.

(Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Maryland Lottery sales last year were $272 million. In Baltimore County, $190 million. In Anne Arundel County, $118 million. In Prince George's County, $271 million. In Montgomery County, $120 million.)

The point? All around the state, people are betting millions - and it's the state that's backing the games. To argue against state-supported gambling is a little hypocritical at this late date.

But opponents of slot machines argue that mere numbers miss the point. Thus we have last week's study, from researchers at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, arguing that gambling brings out the worst instincts in some of our most vulnerable citizens, such as the poor and the elderly.

The study, based on a national telephone survey of 2,630 U.S. citizens about their gambling habits, said, "The rate of pathological or problem gambling among the highest fifth of our sample by socioeconomic status was 1.6; in the lowest fifth, it was 5.3 percent.

No one wants to minimize the pain of problem gambling. Families are torn apart. But the problem gamblers are here already, and they know where to feed their habits. That's the message behind all those lottery numbers, and it's the message behind all those local dollars going to Delaware and West Virginia: We can pretend that keeping slot machines out of Maryland will hold down the number of problem gamblers.

Or we can acknowledge that they'll find a way - racetrack betting, lottery games or out-of-town slots - and will take a shot with their money. But to argue that we're protecting people by keeping out slots is a little naive at this point. That argument lost all its muscle years ago, the first time the state of Maryland took a 50-cent bet on a lottery ticket.

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