Hardly a Sure Bet: Lottery In Britain Raises Eyebrows
Critics warn of addiction, loss to charities, and burden on poor
LONDON — DID Her Britannic Majesty Queen Elizabeth II join 25 million of her subjects and have a flutter in the country's first official lottery?
Asked to confirm or deny press reports that the monarch had indeed taken the plunge, struck it lucky, and shared a prize of 10 ($16) British pounds with 19 other members of the royal family, a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman declined ``absolutely'' to comment on what was ``essentially a private matter.''
The queen, in fact, must be about the only person in Britain to have nothing to say about the nation's most-hyped gambling event this century, with prizes of 6 million British pounds to 7 million British pounds to be won each week.
When the marbles began to roll on Nov. 19 in the National Lottery's first-ever draw, 22 million people tuned in on TV - nearly as many as saw the British ice-dancing duo, Torvill and Dean, perform at the last Winter Olympics.
``It is a big national event,'' said Alan Yentob, the program producer. ``Everyone is caught up in it.''
Not everyone is happy. A wide range of charities is supposed to benefit from the once-weekly draw. But David Sieff, chairman of the National Lottery Charity Board, admits that because of administrative holdups, the first payouts may be delayed until early 1996.
In the meantime, charities that depend for their survival on public donations are watching money that would otherwise flow toward them being spent on lottery tickets.
Russell Valance, director of the Wishbone Trust, a leading orthopedic support group, says millions of pounds will ``pile up'' while ``urgently needed charity projects die of starvation.''
Stuart Etherington, director of the National Council for Voluntary Organizations, is concerned too. ``We will get money from the lottery, but we stand to lose twice as much as we would previously have received in donations,'' he says.
The National Lottery had its origins in the failure of the government and large business organizations down the years to support charitable causes.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher turned down the idea of a British lottery like Spain, with its El Gordo (the fat one), and about 100 other countries around the world.
She told her advisers that Brits - what with gambling on horse and dog racing, not to mention betting over soccer matches - already gambled too much.
But when John Major became prime minister four years ago, he enthusiastically supported the idea. A properly run lottery, he said, would produce 9 billion British pounds ($14 billion) for five ``good causes'' - charities, the arts, sports, the nation's heritage, and a fund to commemorate the millennium - by the year 2000.
He forecast that some 28 percent of the lottery's profits would go toward the selected good causes.
``Every man and woman in this country can be a direct beneficiary,'' Mr. Major said, as he pushed the necessary legislation through Parliament in 1992.
This summer gambling fervor began to grip Britain.
Camelot, the company which won the lottery franchise, invested 40 million British pounds in a pre-launch advertising blitz. Leaflets were sent to 22 million homes.
As the first one-pound tickets went on sale at 7 a.m. on Nov. 14, Major and Stephen Dorrell, his heritage secretary, attended a launch party at which they nibbled canapes and watched the gray skies above London light up with a fireworks display.
``Britain will never be the same again,'' Mr. Dorrell said.
That prospect does not appeal to everyone. Emanuel Moran, chairman of the National Council on Gambling, likens lotteries to ``habit-forming drugs.''
A spokeswoman for the Methodist Church called the National Lottery ``morally reprehensible.''
Some lottery opponents say the people most likely to buy tickets will be those who can least afford them. Research in the Republic of Ireland suggests that the unemployed are four times more likely to buy tickets than people in work.
Camelot, which stands to make 1.6 billion British pounds from the lottery in the next six years, is unmoved by such complaints.
David Rigg, its communication director, says: ``The lottery is a game of long odds, and real gamblers are not attracted to long odds.''
Mr. Rigg notes that the chances of winning the jackpot are 14 million to one.
After the first draw, Camelot admitted that it had been wrong to run a publicity campaign confidently forecasting that playing by these rules someone was ``certain to become a millionaire.'' In the event, seven winners shared the jackpot of 5.9 million, British pounds giving each of them 842,875.
The British pounds lingering question, though, is: Was the queen among them? A great deal has been learned about the royal family in the last few years, but Her Majesty's gambling habits, it seems, will remain a closed book.