It's cheap. It's convenient. It's the No. 1 moneymaker for the gambling industry.
It's the $1 lottery ticket, and it touched off an unprecedented frenzy this week as Americans spent a record amount of money on the chance of winning a multistate sweepstakes called Powerball.
As the purse ballooned Wednesday to $194.4 million - the biggest ever - droves of people waited in long lines at convenience stores in 20 states and Washington to buy tickets. Among them were Bill Abbott, a mechanic from Manchester, N.H., and White House spokesman Mike McCurry, who was 24 minutes late starting a press briefing because of the lines at his local 7-Eleven.
Powerball mania was running so high that several states took the unusual step of advising people to spend prudently. It also raised anew concerns about gambling addiction, as well as criticism that games with huge pots serve to entice even nongamblers to open their wallets, introducing them to the gambling world.
In New Hampshire, which was inundated by citizens from neighboring states that don't take part in Powerball, officials attribute the tenfold increase in lottery spending to new customers - rather than to regular customers who spent a lot more money than usual.
"I don't believe it [the jackpot] is adding to one individual's gambling problem - if they have a problem," says Rick Wisler, executive director of the New Hampshire Sweepstakes Commission.
Still, New Hampshire for the first time ran radio and television ads warning people not to spend their grocery money on Powerball tickets. Some other states aired similar advertisements.
"Lottery games were designed for fun and entertainment, but people should be playing responsibly," says Mr. Wisler.
Lotteries alone take in $43 billion a year, and one-third of that is profit, according to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, a group created by Congress in 1996.
Powerball sales for Wednesday's drawing totaled $138.5 million, a new record. Many states dedicate a portion of their lottery revenues to public education, city beautification, programs for senior citizens, or other social services.
A popular pastime
Nationwide, an estimated 80 percent of Americans gamble on occasion, and about 5 percent become addicted, according to the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.
Traditionally, lotteries are thought to be favored by blue-collar workers and minorities, who see them as a passport to fulfilling their vision of the American dream, says Dana Forman of the Massachusetts council.
Indeed, Mr. McCurry reminded reporters Wednesday of President Clinton's long-standing opposition to lotteries for just that reason. The president opposed statewide lotteries as governor of Arkansas because of "the regressive nature of income derived from state lottery programs," McCurry said.
But the Powerball craze seemed to attract a broader range of customers.
"There's a great influx of people I've never seen before," says Paul Clay, taking a hasty break Wednesday from working at a crowded convenience store in Salem, N.H. "It's tremendous." Some people lined up outside the store at 5 a.m., waiting for it to open, he says.
Mr. Abbott, the Manchester mechanic, was one of the more modest gamblers, spending only $5 on this week's game. "I've got a wife and three kids and a mortgage that I've got to worry about," he says.
'Out of control'
But Bill Cavanaugh, a former compulsive gambler who volunteers to counsel addicts, says the Powerball rush was "out of control." He knows of people who traveled from Massachusetts to New Hampshire to buy $3,000 or $4,000 in tickets.
"It's like a holiday up here," he said Wednesday from Salem, N.H. "They're all psyched up about it. [But] people are losing their life savings."
The lottery is so popular because of its ready availability, says Mr. Forman of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. "If a restaurant has a game, it's convenient for the person sitting there ... who is waiting for their meal to come, to fill out the forms and want to gamble," he says.
The council does not directly oppose gambling but warns people that its abuse can result in bankruptcy, job loss, marriage breakdowns, and homelessness. The council is funded partly by sales from the Massachusetts State Lottery.
Increasingly, state lottery commissions are using some of their revenues to fund groups that warn people about the problems gambling can generate.