WHATEVER moral reservations some Americans may have about legalized gambling, it is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States.
In 1991, the phenomenal popularity of legal gambling added up to over $300 billion in wagering, gaming experts say. Four years before that the figure was around $210 billion. Add another $30 billion a year for illegal gambling, such as playing the numbers or betting on professional and college sports, and gaming is one of the biggest growth industries in the US, these experts say.
"If [legalized gambling] were a holding company, it would rank No. 19 on the Fortune 500 list - ahead of American Express and behind Proctor & Gamble," says Eugene Christiansen, president of Christiansen/Cummings Associates, a New York consulting firm.
Some 29 years have passed since New Hampshire approved the first state lottery, helping trigger the nationwide gambling surge. But some critics ask: Do gambling's negatives outweigh the positives its proponents have promised? One way to answer the question is by revisiting some of gambling's promises.
In 1976, Atlantic City, N.J., became the first casino town on the East Coast. Promoters had convinced state and city officials after years of debate that gambling would be a unique tool for urban revitalization in the declining city. The 12 casinos in the city won $3.22 billion in 1992 from gamblers, a record for a 12-month period, according to the Casino Association of New Jersey.
To achieve this in a struggling economy last year, the legislature had to approve around-the-clock gambling, introduce games appealing to Asian bettors, and add more slot machines, the most popular gambling devices.
But has long-term revitalization in fact come to the city? "Unfortunately, that has not turned out to be the case," says James Hughes, associate dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "Very little spillover has ever gone to the neighborhoods," he says, "and what vitality was left was drained out of the old downtown and absorbed by the casinos themselves. Local businesses got the short end of the stick."
In 1992, 8 percent, or around $240 million, of the city's casino earnings were used for state and city programs to aid disabled and senior citizens. After 17 years of gambling in Atlantic City, the major winners are the casinos, while the city's neighborhoods continue to struggle with minimal support from gambling revenues.
For instance, not until 1986 was the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority established to use casino-generated funds to improve neighborhoods. As of 1990, only 680 houses in the city were built or renovated.
Consumer experts and academics who follow gambling say its explosive growth has been sparked by three key factors - cash hungry governments (sometimes facing recession) turning to gambling to raise revenue, leisure-company promotion of gambling as entertainment, and the appeal of new, high-tech video gambling. Decades of church-sponsored gambling has also tended to lend approval to games of chance.
Promoters of gambling, including state lotteries, have successfully altered the image of gambling from that of a tawdry activity to one of "entertainment." And gambling has been "de-skilled" with easier, faster games - like scratching lottery cards or touching the screens of high-tech video poker or keno.
The increased number of compulsive gamblers is a growing problem, says Jean Falzon, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. She estimates that compulsive gamblers could account for 5 percent of the gambling population. Durand Jacobs, a clinical psychologist at Loma Linda University in southern California, says compulsive gambling is so widespread, including the growing numbers of teenage gamblers, that he wants gambling labeled as "hazardous to a person's health."
In Las Vegas, Nev., most casinos offer a "theme park" experience for families to surround gaming with a glamorous atmosphere and activities for kids. TV ads for lotteries depict the thrill of winning, but not the astronomical odds against winning.
Using computer-analyzed interviews, Harrah's Casinos found what gamblers like. "We discovered which words were used most often to describe the experience they wanted," says Bala Subramanian, corporate director for marketing of Promus, Harrah's Casinos parent company.
According to the study, gamblers want to "socialize" with friendly dealers and other patrons, be in an "entertaining" environment with shows and restaurants, and have a "shot at winning" so that their gambling money is not gone in the first day.
Philip Satre, president of Harrah's Hotels and Casinos, asserts: "Americans have a philosophical drive, an instinct for achievement, and that includes taking risks. They have an inbred tendency . . . to gamble."
According to a survey on casino gambling sponsored by Harrah's, 55 percent of US adults approve of gambling for anyone. The same survey indicates that 22 percent "of US households made one trip to a casino in 1991."
"In seven or eight years," Mr. Subramanian says, "the majority of population centers in the US will have casino-style gambling accessible to them." In seven years, he predicts 40 percent of US households "will probably be participating in gambling."