Washington — John Steele, who counsels compulsive gamblers in Maryland, sums up America's fascination with lotteries, casinos, and other forms of betting this way: ``Gambling is an equal opportunity destroyer.''
At least 2 million people in the United States are addicted to gambling -- young and old, black and white, rich and poor. It cuts across all lines. Experts say it's getting worse. They wonder what can be done.
A number of church leaders and lawmakers are especially concerned right now about the newest and fastest-growing area of gambling, state-run lotteries. The lotteries are drawing droves of people -- especially women -- into gambling for the first time. Yet opponents find that their warnings are often unheeded.
``Anyone who suggested repealing the lottery in Ohio would start a minor revolution,'' says Democrat Thomas A. Luken, US congressman from Cincinnati. ``It is extremely popular.''
In Maryland, the lottery is so widely followed that TV stations consider it a major audience builder. This year, one Baltimore station agreed to give the Maryland Lottery $95,000 in free advertising for the right to broadcast the lottery's daily numbers drawing.
Another factor is that many governors and state legislators seem addicted to the funds they gain from state-run lottery gambling. Profits from the state lotteries surged by more than 30 percent last year, and could rise to $5 billion in 1985. It's become the golden goose. Lawmakers are loath to kill it, especially at a time when Washington is taking away much of the gold it sends to the states.
So lottery opponents face a difficult struggle. Nevertheless, they do have a number of ideas to slow the growth of lotteries, and to lessen their impact on society. Here are some of them:
Halt lottery advertising. Like cigarettes and alcohol, gambling seems to be addictive for many people. TV advertising has been banned for cigarettes and is not accepted by most broadcast stations for hard liquor. Yet millions of dollars' worth of ads are aired each year to boost the lotteries and other forms of betting.
Ironically, it is government that pays for many of these ads. Opponents ask: Should government be in the business of encouraging people to gamble?
Demand truth in advertising. Lottery ads are designed to make gambling look like fun, just as cigarette ads on television used to do. Opponents would like to see counteradvertising that revealed the tremendous odds against being a winner.
Mr. Steele observes: ``You stand seven times better chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of winning a million dollars in the lottery.'' Yet every time a multimillion-dollar winner is announced, interest in the lottery surges. Opponents ask: Why shouldn't counterads point out all the millions of people who lost?
Target organized crime. Criminals operate a multibillion-dollar numbers racket in the United States. Lottery supporters ask: Why shouldn't the state cut into that business by selling lottery tickets in competition with the racketeers?
The facts, however, appear to be that the legal numbers business (lotteries) has done little damage to the illegal numbers business. A federal investigator says the numbers racket is as big as ever today in places like New York and Maryland. He says that the legal lottery may even help the racketeers, who use the legal number, which is well publicized, for their own number.
One reason there is little impact on the illegal rackets is that the states have set up their own lotteries for maximum profits. Most states pay winners $500 for a $1 bet. Thus, for each $1,000 that is bet, $500 goes to the winner, $100 goes to expenses, and the state is left with a $400 profit. The illegal rackets usually pay $600 for a $1 bet, and settle for a smaller profit. So anyone without compunctions about dealing with a bookie goes for the bigger payoff.
There's an obvious answer. A federal commission that looked at the numbers business said that if government really wanted to set up lotteries to hurt the rackets, it would be easy: just boost the payout to 800 to 1 or 900 to 1. The crooks would be driven out of business. But the states have universally ignored that advice and set up their lotteries for a maximum return to themselves.
Stiffen the tax laws. At present, most people do not pay taxes on their lottery winnings, because there is a legal loophole. The law requires the lotteries to report winnings only when they are $600 or more. Since most bets pay off only $500 or less, people can duck their taxes with impunity, because there is no record that goes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
If reformers wanted to make lotteries less attractive, they could require that the lotteries report all winnings to the IRS, right down to the last dime.
Loosen the tax laws. Another idea -- this one aimed at the illegal numbers racket -- is to make most gambling winnings tax-free. At present, the illegal rackets get some customers who don't want to risk having the IRS find out how much they win. Doing away with taxes on winnings would put the legal lotteries on an equal footing.
Emphasize that lotteries hurt the poor. Some Protestant church leaders claim that lotteries are merely schemes to draw large amounts of taxes out of poor neighborhoods. They call them regressive taxation. Others disagree. They say that when lottery proceeds are directed into areas like education and aid to the elderly, the poor get the benefits. Churchmen who are frustrated that they are failing to stop lotteries on moral and religious grounds are now trying to make strong socioeconomic cases against lotteries.
Get big names involved. The lottery and gambling issue has been quiescent since the early 1950s. Some church leaders say one of the best ways to bring it back to national attention would be to get a famous person involved in the fight. Two well-known preachers are often mentioned: Jesse Jackson and Billy Graham.
Begin new education programs. In school, children are taught the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. How about gambling?
Support research. Do lotteries really hurt the poor? Are they regressive? Do they encourage compulsive gambling? Answers to these questions are sketchy, but scholarly research might reveal problems that would make lotteries look less attractive.
George Sternlieb of Rutgers University notes that the upsurge of gambling adds one more anomaly to these rather curious times in America. The country today is in the midst of a fundamentalist political and religious revival, yet at the same time people are flocking to buy lottery tickets.
Dr. Sternlieb says the current climate seems to be: ``Abortions, no; lotteries, yes. It makes you sort of wonder.''
Last of eight articles. Other articles ran July 8-12, 15, and 16.