The cycle has now been completed. States that once sent old guys in black suits to prison for betting are legalizing the once-scorned sport and peddling it even to grandmothers as if it were a magic elixiar. Peculiar? Yes, Possible? Quite.

With some form of gambling now legalized in 46 or the 50 states, NBC News' White Paper "Gambling" -- tonight on Channel 4 at 9:30 -- makes a timely and constructive report on a phenomenon that may well replace baseball as the national pastime.

Institutionalized gambling is here and spreading like Perrier in a singles' bar. Considering the tremendous success Atlantic City has had with casinos, the argument over social cost versus revenues and jobs appears to be lost. Correspondent David Brinkley reports that New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and other states are "eyeing the dollars flowing into Atlantic City's four casinos. Since the casinos opened, their 'win' has been nearly $1 billion."

Legalized gambling may be the most pervasive example in our society today of economics winning out over moral considerations.

The average weekend $5 football bettor, hearing all of this alarm, may feel as if he's been drinking white wine and then accused of alcoholism. But, he's just the tip of a very large iceberg. Last year in Las Vegas alone, more than 11 1/2 million people lost $1.5 billion gambling, and Gamblers Anonymous estimates there are between six million and nine million complusive gamblers in the United States.

One of those gambling compulsives, interviewed for the report, recalls, "I was gambling for 40 hours straight and I was up to $100,000. Everyone told me to leave, but I couldn't. Finally I went upstairs to take a shower, but afterward I just went right back to the tables. I lost it all."

Other first-hand accounts include a conversation with a middle-aged woman from the Midwest who says that Vegas is "my one big vacation each year." She says that she pops in for 11-day stays and averages about 16 hours a day at the slot machines. "I love it," she says.

But the casinos aren't the only places for action. Perhaps the newest inroad into institutionalized gambling is called "Teletrak," which offers hard-core horse racing fans in Connecticut the comforts of a movie theater in which to watch the races from the track and, of course, bet at the same time.

"Gambling" does more than just poke around in casinos and movie theaters. It looks at trends and repercussions. It looks at the psychology behind gambling, and it looks at whether or not the promise of the industry have come true. It handles the difficult issue of crime and gambling in an informative manner, using statistics and factual circumstances rather than editorializing and heresay.

This 90-minute White Paper, produced by Anthony Potter, succeeds in making something immediate and distressing out of a problem that many people might never have thought of as a problem in the first place.