The Monitor's View

What happens in Vegas

More cash-strapped states are being lured into allowing casinos for the tax revenues. But a new book offers a close-up view of how local residents in Las Vegas are worse off than the rest of the country.

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A number of Northeast states, notably Massachusetts and New York, are moving to allow casinos as a permanent fix for a temporary shortage of tax revenue. During tough economic times, politicians often find it more convenient to turn a vice into cash than to nurture new businesses that can actually make things.

Look a bit closer, however, and you’ll notice that these latest pro-gambling moves by states also include money to help addictive gamblers. Yes, officials are forced to admit they are responsible for creating addicts by putting casinos near large populations. How do they know?

Just look at Nevada, where the local people (not the tourists) are nearly twice as likely to be problem gamblers as the rest of the nation, and where there are 14 meetings of Gamblers Anonymous a day.

And according to a new book on the social fallout from the gambling industry, Nevada also now has “higher rates of crime, bankruptcy filings, home foreclosures, divorces, and suicides than anywhere else in the country.”

The book’s author, Sam Skolnik, should know. He not only admits to being a problem gambler but he covered Las Vegas as a reporter for the city’s Sun newspaper. The book, “High Stakes: The Rising Cost of America’s Gambling Addiction,” should be required reading for any state legislator who must vote on allowing or expanding gambling.

With some 100,000 problem or pathological gamblers in Nevada – or about 1 in 16 adults – the state is a role model for what other states should avoid. Where Las Vegas residents go to their two dozen neighborhood-based casinos – away from the Big Strip – they also pass dozens of pawnshops and payday loan stores ready to cater to those who can’t stop gambling.

The locals lose nearly four times as much each year by gambling, or about $1,500, as the national average. The suicide rate among seniors in Nevada is three times that of the rest of the country.

“Las Vegas is one of the most dysfunctional communities in America, in part, because of legalized gambling,” writes Mr. Skolnik. The state has been very reluctant to fund self-help programs for gambling addicts, in part because the industry tries to present studies that look favorably on gambling. When gambling in America brings in about $100 billion a year in profits, good PR and rigged studies come easy to help expand the industry.

So does corruption. The US Justice Department, for example, just charged the Internet firm Full Tilt Poker with fraud, alleging that it ran a “global Ponzi scheme” bilking poker players of hundreds of millions of dollars. How many states want to wake up some day to find such crimes committed in their casinos?

Nationwide between 1996 and 2005 the number of Gamblers Anonymous meetings rose by 50 percent. States should not be lured by gambling revenue to become seducers of the estimated 3 to 7 percent of people prone to problem gambling. A tax cure cannot become the cause of addiction, crime, and many other personal tragedies.

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