Needed Look at Gambling

A new federal commission to study the impact of gambling on American society is still taking shape. Its composition needs to be a careful balance of perspectives, so that its final report can help direct policy in a highly problematic area of national life and not be brushed aside as biased or irrelevant.

Legislation creating the commission passed in the last session of Congress, and its chief backers left no doubt about their concerns. "America is on a gambling binge," said the bill's author, Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia. "The question facing this commission will be: Are we trading long-term economic growth and prosperity for short-term gain?"

Supporters of gambling will answer the economic question by pointing to revitalization in places like Atlantic City, N.J. Just as telling, however, are findings about casinos "cannibalizing" other businesses, the appeal of gambling to low-income people, and the costs of compulsive gambling. In any case, economics is just one focus of inquiry. The moral question is even more central. Does the country really want to continue fostering an industry, euphemistically called "gaming," which feeds on the notions that chance is supreme and that wasting one's substance is fun.

It is all too easy to answer with a loud "yes." After all, casinos now operate in 23 states, and 37 states have lotteries. A powerful ring of interests has fastened around legalized gambling, from state governments to a $40 billion gambling industry, to the Indian nations who've discovered gaming operations can be a gold mine, to the politicians who take campaign contributions from gaming concerns.

Still, nine states had gambling referenda on their ballots in November, and six voted them down. There remains a bedrock of common sense among Americans that gambling is destructive of community and individual morality.

We hope the work of the commission - which now awaits final appointments from President Clinton and the Democratic leaders in Congress - reinforces that bedrock. If the appointments lean toward those with an interest in extending gambling's growth, charges of political payoff will be loud, and justified.

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