Just a few years ago, gambling bore a social and political stigma rightly associated with shadiness and organized crime.
But within a disturbingly short time, officially-sanctioned betting has become widespread. All but three states now have some form of legal gambling, and industry profits have risen to more than $50 billion a year as Americans spend $600 billion annually on games of "skill" and "chance" - more than they do on clothes, cars, or groceries.
It's tempting to think that picking up a lottery ticket at the corner store or spending a few hours at the racetrack or casino is harmless fun. And besides, don't state-approved gambling activities boost local economies and provide needed revenues for things like schools?
In fact, there's mounting evidence that gambling is not the economic boon that industry boosters and their political allies have promised. And once the social costs are factored in, the hand dealt to many communities is clearly a losing one.
Researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Georgia this week reported that about three years after casino gambling is introduced to a community - roughly the time it takes for many gamblers to exhaust their personal resources - crime rates start to increase. This includes not only property crimes like burglary, larceny, and auto theft but also such violent crimes as rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Higher incidents of suicide, divorce, and high school drop-outs have been connected to casino towns as well.
Perhaps most troubling, millions of young people apparently have fallen into the gambling trap, in the process of which they are twice as likely as adults to become problem gamblers. Underage gamblers, along with the working poor and the elderly, seem to be particularly vulnerable to the false promise of gambling. It's estimated that some 20 million Americans are identified as problem gamblers.
A federal commission reports to Congress and the White House today after a two-year investigation. Among other things, commission members recommend a moratorium on new casinos and lotteries, an increase in the minimum betting age to 21, more resources to address gambling addiction, a ban on collegiate-sports betting, and stricter limits on the political influence of gambling interests.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, who pushed for the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, proposes many good legislative remedies. Lawmakers - especially those who have received campaign contributions from the gambling industry - should give these serious consideration.
Above all, Americans - especially young people - need to see that gambling's promises are as false as a pair of loaded dice. The notion of chance and luck as sources of good does not have to be believed.