Legal gambling has spread so quickly in the United States that many Americans might be surprised to learn that 26 states now have casinos and 38 have lotteries. Las Vegas and Atlantic City are just the most established parts of a pervasive, multi-billion-dollar industry.
The social and moral costs of the country's mega-move into gambling have yet to be fully tallied. That's supposed to be the job of the federal Gambling Impact Study Commission, appointed in 1996 and scheduled to complete its report next year. The commission, however, is a carefully balanced body, embracing casino owners as well as ardent antigambling activists. Its findings aren't likely to include an unequivocal warning about the dangers of fostering reliance on chance.
Part of that fostering is right in the US tax code, which currently allows gamblers to deduct losses from winnings, thus reducing their tax liability. Efforts in Congress to remove that deduction run into the very real political clout of gambling interests.
Some of the most powerful figures in Congress, like Senate majority leader Trent Lott and House minority leader Dick Gephardt, receive substantial campaign contributions from the gaming industry. The industry contributed nearly $4 million in "soft money" to the political parties in '96. It is a big contributor again this year.
For state governments and Native American tribes, as well as the big casino-hotel operators, gambling appears a sure bet - providing revenues and jobs. But not enough attention is given the inevitable downside. Lotteries essentially pick the pockets of many modest-income families. Casinos breed irresponsibility. A small but significant percentage of gamblers become addicts, burdening families and communities.
The gambling addiction is particularly worrisome among the young. Studies indicate that youthful gamblers are more likely than adults to ignore the overwhelming odds against winning and become hooked.
Despite laws prohibiting gambling by those younger than 18 or 21, many young people find their way to the tables or slots - just as they find their way to cigarettes or alcohol.
States market lottery tickets like candy, complete with cartoon images. Casinos are pitched as family destinations, with carnival attractions for the kids.
The country needs to wake up to the dangers of gambling, just as it has finally started to curb tobacco's cultivation of new generations of smokers. But it shouldn't wait so long this time.