If there were a constitutional guarantee against raising false hopes, the lottery craze now gripping many states might be nipped in the bud. Millions of people across the United States are gambling away their assets in an assortment of highly publicized, state-sanctioned games, ranging from Arizona's ''Triple Crown'' to Massachusetts' ''Megabucks.'' The few winners are momentarily whisked into the media limelight. The legions of losers remain in obscurity.
Seventeen states now lure their citizenry into games of chance. And well-organized, well-financed gambling interests are pushing lottery initiatives in four more this November - California, Missouri, Oregon, and West Virginia. Drives are under way in other places. Some predict that within a few years, half the states will be running numbers games.
Let's hope the tide will turn the other way. By any reasonable standards, lotteries are a losing game.
Private gaming interests promote lotteries as popular pastimes for the people and effective revenue raisers for states battered by inflation. They particularly pitch to backers of education that gaming income could help swell scholastic coffers. ''What's the harm?'' is the message. People have fun - and many make money. States lower their deficits. Children get educated. Nobody gets hurt. There's even a rationale that a legalized lottery keeps professional gambling interests, including organized crime, at bay. Everybody wins.
Wrong! Almost everybody loses. The bettor's chances of hitting a winning number are about 1 in 2 million. The habitual gambler - who is lured to chance rather than shielded from it by the state - may end up losing not only his money but his job, family, friends - and his self-respect. For many, gambling is addictive. For some, it leads to other destructive things - alcoholism, drugs, and even theft (to support the betting habit).
Society is also a loser. The work ethic, an American ideal that promises rewards as a result of honest, hard labor, is replaced by a chance ethic, which promises (in most cases, falsely) riches and fame as a result of luck.
Gambling promoters would have us believe that lottery players participate of their own free will. They insist that gamblers are people who can well afford to take a chance on losing their money.
There is other evidence, however - presented by those who try to rehabilitate compulsive gamblers and groups opposing lotteries, such as California's Coalition Against Legalizing Lotteries (CALL) - that lotteries prey on the jobless, the uneducated, the lonely, the isolated elderly, and impressionable youth.
''Lotteries are regressive. They transfer costs to the poor,'' insists the Rev. Harvey Chinn, executive director of CALL. Mr. Chinn is a paid lobbyist for a consortium of churches fighting a ballot initiative in California that would install a legalized state lottery. Many say that if the nation's most populous state lifts its 135-year constitutional ban on lotteries, the move might ignite a pro-gaming prairie fire across the US.
''We are concerned with what it (gambling) does to human souls ..., people wanting to live by their wits, not hard work,'' Mr. Chinn says. ''The state is there to protect individuals, not to exploit their weaknesses.''
Herbert Kahn, a Massachusetts business executive, calls state lotteries a legal ''swindle.'' In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Kahn said: ''In order to attract financially unsophisticated people to the lottery, the state misrepresents the winnings in almost exactly the same way finance companies used to do before the Truth-in-Lending Law. It is ironic that today not even the sleaziest moneylender is permitted to do things that state lotteries do as a matter of routine.''
Whether lotteries are good or bad business for states is not the point. They're an unworthy challenge to individual initiative and dignity - and counterproductive to a healthy society. In short, they're a bad bet!