The images of gambling in America are a far cry from a generation ago:
• Thrilled lottery winners display giant checks and tell which part of their dreams they plan to fulfill first.
• Catchy TV ads portray the bright lights, happy faces, and seductive action at nearby casinos, and promise "the wonder of it all."
• Gaming and wagering offers in Las Vegas now come wrapped in attractive family-vacation packages.
Once seen as a shady business with a sleazy ambience, gambling has won increasing respectability. Two-thirds of Americans now call it "morally acceptable," and even more have participated in one form or another in the past year. State governors, facing huge budget deficits, often include gambling-expansion plans in their electoral platforms or budget proposals.
Yet despite the wider acceptability, the public seems ambivalent. As state politicians become "gambling czars" and casinos proliferate, many citizens are mounting a battle to contain it.
In fact, last year, 42 out of 45 proposals for expansion in 30 states were defeated, according to the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. Five states rejected lotteries; six turned down first-time casinos; and the fight over slot machines in racetracks tallied 19 against 2. "With the favorability ratings and gambling in 48 states, you'd think it would be flying off the shelves, but it isn't," says the Rev. Tom Grey, the Methodist minister who founded the coalition, which collaborates with local antigambling groups.
Does this reflect a public backlash?
The casino industry says "no," that defeats come largely because other gambling interests don't want competition. "Whenever a change in the mix is proposed - to have a riverboat casino in a state with a lottery and horse-racing, for example - you'll normally find the main opposition comes from existing gambling in the state or in adjacent states," says Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the American Gaming Association (AGA).
This is clearly a factor in some defeats. In others, however, citizen groups can claim the victory.
In Maine, for instance, a group that started around the kitchen table sparked the defeat of a casino proposed by Indian tribes and a Las Vegas interest by marshaling grass-roots support against gambling across the political spectrum.
"We had no gambling-interest backing," says Dennis Bailey, a public relations executive who led the effort. They got a big boost when L.L. Bean joined the fray, followed by other businesses.
"Gambling isn't seen as a sin any more, but there's just way too much," Mr. Bailey explains. "The backlash is against casinos. The industry just doesn't know when to quit."
For Maine residents, it's an issue of quality of life and image. "They don't want the state's image to change from "lighthouses, lobsters, potatoes, and woods" to "casinos, slot machines, and dancing girls" says Bailey.
At the same time, another ballot initiative for slots at racetracks passed. The group had decided not to try to fight both initiatives at once, what they now term a strategic mistake. "We think we can get it back to another vote," Bailey says.
And yet, Mr. Fahrenkopf says, many economically depressed communities have benefited from gambling. In Iowa last year, for example, all 11 counties that voted on eliminating riverboats or racinos (slots at racetracks) opted to keep them.
Various polls show 25 to 38 percent of Americans have religious or moral misgivings about gambling, but many are reluctant to press their case in terms of personal morality.
Those who object to gambling on religious grounds tend to see it as incompatible with God's role in human life and as a subversion of the Protestant work ethic.
"Those in the evangelical tradition would argue that everything belongs to God and you're not using what God has placed in your hands in a responsible way," says Tony Campolo, head of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. "Also, earning money is a spiritual responsibility, and we shouldn't try to get it for nothing."
But there are those who are willing to press for action based on broader moral concerns. Dr. Campolo and more than 150 other religious leaders sent an open letter to the US Congress in 2002 urging that it begin to address "the pain and devastation" that gambling has wrought on society.
A National Gambling Impact Study had revealed such unsettling consequences that the commission conducting it called for a pause in gambling expansion. The study found that 15 million Americans were "at-risk gamblers," 2.5 million were "pathological gamblers," and pathological gambling occurred proportionately more often among the young, less educated, and poor. It led to destructive and criminal behaviors affecting families and communities, and played a part in some 2 million divorces. About 1 in 5 compulsive gamblers attempts suicide, and the actual suicide rate is higher than for victims of any other type of addiction.
Another study found that 25 to 40 percent of revenues in casinos came from people with some form of addiction, and estimated the economic impact of problem gamblers to be $13,200 per problem gambler per year.
While gambling is presented today as simply "another entertainment option," opponents say, people are becoming more aware of its economic and social costs.
In Maryland, civic and religious groups are fighting the governor's proposals to put slot machines at racetracks. Kevin McGhee, a pastor in Laurel, Md., and president of the local clergy association, says, "Every study we've looked at shows that within 25 miles of these slot- machine venues, the problems of addiction escalate dramatically."
His group and some local African-American churches "are fighting this quite aggressively," he says. "Maryland already has a lottery that was supposed to be once a week and has evolved into many times a day."
The governor faces a huge budget deficit, but opponents says the slots won't solve the problem any more than the lottery has.
"It's political expedience to use gambling rather than taxation," Mr. McGhee adds. "We've said people need more courage. We're trying to help them find their moral backbone."
Most troubling to many people is the role of state governments. States were the regulators and law enforcers of gambling until they shifted - starting with New Hampshire in 1964 - to running and promoting state lotteries.
(Fahrenkopf calls this "the real seminal event in changing America's perception of gambling. How could gambling be morally wrong if state government was doing it?" )
Robert Goodman, a professor at Hampshire College who has done economic studies on gambling, contends the state's role conflicts with its primary concern for the welfare of citizens.
"Each time government has a shortfall in revenues and tries to raise it by getting people to gamble more, that raises serious issues," he says.
Most surveys show this shifts the burden of paying for public services to lower-income residents. While Gallup found that about the same percentage of people from each income group play the lottery, the average amount gambled by those with incomes under $20,000 was two to five times that of higher income groups.
And heavy state promotion of the lottery can be manipulative. Dr. Goodman recalls, "The Illinois lottery would have billboards in poor black neighborhoods saying, 'This is your ticket out.'"
Lance Dodes, a Boston psychiatrist who heads a gambling treatment center, says the advent of the lottery has dramatically changed the profile of compulsive gamblers. "A problem that used to apply only to men is now an equal opportunity event," he says. Many young people are getting hooked on campuses, too.
"We talk about people becoming addicted to gambling, but essentially, governments have become addicted to these revenues; and it will never be enough," Goodman cautions.
Don Feeny, research director of the Minnesota State Lottery, agrees it can't fill the role of taxation. In his state, the lottery funds less than 2 percent of the budget.
"Can it ever raise the money taxation does? Absolutely not. Can it do it as efficiently? No." But, he adds, the public seems to prefer a lottery to taxation.
While the antigambling forces had many victories in 2003, Mr. Grey says they're going to be short-lived unless "we raise a real army."
He'll keep traveling the country to buck up local coalitions, as he's been doing since his initial battle against riverboat gambling in Galena, Ill., in 1992. He argues the case from the standpoint of "social morality:"
"It's not good economics, it's not good public policy, and it's not good for the quality of life," he says. "Any society that preys on the pathology of some people to support education or another good cause, that's not just."