America has been transformed during the past 25 years from a nation in which legalized gambling was limited and rare into one in which such activity is widespread and growing. That's the conclusion of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, the first comprehensive look at legalized gambling since 1976. The commission's report, which includes more than 70 recommendations for changes in gambling policy, now goes to officials at all levels of government. Unfortunately, if the track record of elected officials is any indication, we should not expect much leadership on these issues.
The bedrock of the commission's findings is that gambling has become an economic and entertainment activity producing significant negative consequences for millions of individuals and families -- consequences such as bankruptcy, divorce, crime and mental health disorders. Studies suggest that at some point in their lives, more than 15 million Americans display a dependency associated with problem or pathological gambling. Some argue that number is too low. But one thing is for sure -- that figure doesn't count one group that has come to depend on gambling -- the governors and legislators of the 47 states that allow some form of legalized gambling.
Theoretically, these states do not permit unlimited gambling; each new casino or lotto game is an "exception." But each gambling expansion seems to generate pressure for more exceptions. Battles are going on across the country about whether to bow to "competitive" pressures and grant exceptions for more types or locations for gambling.
Why is this happening? It may be a coincidence, but the surge in legal games of chance during the past two decades matches a great shift in U.S. politics. Starting in the late '70s, political campaigns increasingly became dominated by anti-government and anti-tax rhetoric. While gambling provides only a small share of total revenues in most states, in tight times those dollars offer just enough extra to escape or put off service cuts or higher taxes. Thus, even political leaders who claim to disapprove of gambling become politically dependent on it.
The gambling addiction of choice for politicians in 37 states is the lottery. Unfortunately, lotteries are the worst of a bad lot when it comes to the disadvantages of gambling. States, free of legal restraints that inhibit other purveyors of gambling, engage in heavy and misleading lottery advertising. They pay back to bettors the smallest share of the take of any legal game -- about 50 percent versus more than 90 percent for most other legal forms of gambling. And, of course, lotteries are an extremely regressive form of taxation. With 5 percent of the players purchasing more than 50 percent of the tickets, lotteries rely on disproportionate purchases by citizens with limited education and by low-income minorities. Their promise of funds for educational, senior citizen and health programs also is largely bogus, with almost all serious studies indicating that net spending on such programs does not increase.
To change course, we need to change some of the rules. The commission recommends requiring a comprehensive "gambling impact statement," similar to environmental impact statements, before expansion or addition of any form of gambling is permitted. Some of us also favor posting clear statements of odds as well as information alerting players to the risks of gambling dependency on the premises of every gambling licensee. Similar information could be included in advertising copy and distributed with every state-sponsored gambling product.
Changing the odds on gambling will not be easy. But our political system can be marvelously responsive to the public will when that will is informed and manifest. But the public needs help. It needs the media to report more than jackpots, and it needs its leaders to join in a public-education effort.
Getting the facts out, as was the case with information campaigns about smoking, can make an enormous long-term difference. The stakes are high because, in the absence of an interested and aroused citizenry, the odds favor more gambling, not less.
The writer is president of the Century Foundation and was a member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.