The more America opens the door to legalized gambling, the harder it gets to shut it when the need arises. That's the big message in a standoff between the US and the rest of the world over whether to ban gambling on the Internet.
As a new, easier route to an old vice, Web gambling allows billions of people, including Net-savvy teenagers, to play games for money with strangers in the privacy of their homes, their screens a digital altar to a god of chance with the false promise of unearned wealth.
It has also greatly increased the number of gaming addicts among those who wouldn't go to a racetrack or casino. And it creates a new opportunity for organized crime.
For those reasons, Congress has slammed the door on Internet gambling in the US by restricting the use of credit cards to pay for it, only to have the World Trade Organization rule last March that the move is illegal.
In May, the US decided to use an escape clause and simply exclude Web gambling from its list of services that it would allow the WTO to cover. It was a bold step that rattled other nations because it punches a hole in the WTO's framework and might come back to hurt the US on other trade issues.
Washington's move set the stage for several countries, starting with the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, to demand compensation for lost income in not being able to serve American gamblers. Antigua had staked its economy on being a center for Internet gambling. Negotiations opened last month with little hope the US will pay the $3.4 billion a year demanded by Antigua.
The US stands on weak ground in this confrontation. Many state governments have become addicted to revenues from ever-expanding legalized gambling and fear competition from foreign gambling sites. The US also allows electronic gambling in interstate horse-race betting and state lotteries. And as for safeguarding children, one need only stand at the checkout counter of a convenience store and watch many underage teenagers being sold lottery tickets.
One survey in Atlantic City found nearly two-thirds of high-schoolers have gambled at the casinos there, despite age restrictions. A similar laxity was found among college students in Nevada, where the legal age for gambling is 21. About 10 percent of Nevada's adolescent gamblers are classified as "at risk" – with some addiction appearing at ages 11 or 12.
One 2002 study found that, with the exception of bingo, "Internet gambling is the only type of gambling that adolescent girls in Nevada are more likely to do than boys."
Advocates of Web gambling claim they have screening tools to bar underage users and problem gamblers. But studies of these methods are still too incomplete to provide assurances to US lawmakers. And the looseness of Internet controls on porn websites only weakens the case of proponents.
Congress, however, might override its moral concerns if it decides it wants the money from a tax on Web gambling. It should avoid such temptation.
The better move is to ask for a study by the National Academy of Sciences on whether Internet gambling can be regulated effectively at all to protect the vulnerable.
Beyond that, this challenge should force officials to review how the US has gotten itself deeper into gambling's dark hole, and ask if it is time to see the light.