Tempering the temptation of Web casinos

If, within just a few years, 4.5 percent of college students took on a new form of addiction, one might expect quick national action to curb it. Not so in the US Senate, which left last week for a long holiday without passing a House bill to clamp down on online casinos.

Internet gambling has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching a vulnerable few who can ruin their lives through compulsive betting, ignoring responsibilities, and losing livelihood. College kids away from parental oversight seem especially drawn to the ease and anonymity of Web casinos, notably poker, on their PCs.

About one in 20 young people are judged to be pathological Internet gamblers, according to research by the International Centre for Youth Gambling in Montreal and the University of Connecticut Health Center. And the problem may grow as the industry itself has boomed from $3 billion a year in 2001 to $12 billion last year; it is projected to double in the next few years.

Now match those numbers against the more than $7 million in campaign donations given so far this year to candidates for federal office by the casino and gambling industry, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. And then note that those interests seemed to have led a few senators to block passage of a House-passed bill that would greatly enhance the ability of prosecutors to use the Wire Act of 1961 to go after the online gaming industry. It is possible the Senate may not take up the bill until next year.

Among the House bill's measures is one that would criminalize the processing of payments by American financial institutions for Internet gambling. Credit card companies, banks, and online processors such as PayPal would not be allowed to handle payments of wagers to the offshore casinos. That would be one more critical step in removing any ambiguity about the illegality of Internet gambling. But some legal gaming industries are worried about the effects of such measures on their profits.

Even though the United States has many legal forms of gambling, from Indian casinos to horse-racing tracks, a basic government policy has been to make sure that such gambling is not easily accessible to youth. But the lure of lottery revenues for state governments and the big profits made by the legal gambling industry have steadily corrupted politicians to ignore that policy.

The Senate's purposeful delay in cracking down on illegal Internet gambling shows just how far the public interest has been perverted. Governments need to be on constant guard to control and tax the industry.

With the Internet allowing Americans to play at foreign-based casinos and sports-betting operations, a special vigilance is needed. Federal prosecutors sent that message last month with the arrest of the British chief executive of BetOnSports, David Carruthers, who was caught during a flight layover in the US. BetOnSports is based in London and Costa Rica.

Prohibiting all gambling would be difficult, but gambling should not be difficult for government to control. The Senate should pass the House bill quickly upon its return.

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