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Gambling’s masquerade

By John W. Kennedy

A growth industry
Gaining acceptance
New forms of temptation
Turning the tide
State battlegrounds

Gambling is making a determined march to conquer the land. Will it succeed or will Christians turn back the tide? While most state legislatures are still clinging to the notion that gambling is beneficial to the economy, there are signs that some governments have figured out the cost is too high.

A generation ago, Americans had to seek out places to gamble legally other than Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Now it’s difficult to find a place where gambling doesn’t invade our homes, work and recreational spaces. Winning state lottery numbers flash across the screen on television at night. Casino billboards beckon drivers on the highways. Office wagering pools are run on who will win the NCAA Basketball Tournament or the Super Bowl. Internet advertisements urge web surfers to try their hand at card games. Video gambling machines squawk at customers in restaurants and convenience stores.

Pari-mutuel betting, which includes dog racing, horse racing and jai alai, is legal in 42 states. Lotteries are sponsored by 37 states. And casinos operate in 26 states, in forms ranging from riverboats to Native American reservations. While Atlantic City and Las Vegas still lead in casino revenue, unlikely spots such as Tunica, Miss.; Lake Charles, La.; and Council Bluffs, Iowa — all with populations under 100,000 — are not far behind.

A growth industry
Two decades ago, state governments almost uniformly served as watchdogs to oppose any form of gambling. Now state legislatures promote gambling, addicted to the revenues and insensitive to its negative consequences, according to Valerie Lorenz, 63, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore. Only three states — Utah, Hawaii and Tennessee — have no legalized gambling, but some residents there wager electronically.

"You can gamble over the telephone, over the computer, at the airport, at the train station," Lorenz says.

Lotteries, which started as occasional sweepstakes, gained impetus in the 1970s with daily drawings. Lotteries remain the most widespread form of gambling and the only one in which a majority of American adults have participated. State officials like lotteries because the games provide the highest profit margins. Americans play the lottery in various forms — scratch off instant game tickets, computerized daily lotto numbers picks, video lottery terminal keno machines — even though it has the worst odds of winning. One in five Americans plays a lottery game every week.

State governments have convinced the masses to stand in line with a million-to-one odds of hitting the jackpot. "People would be much better if they stood in line and saved their money for their retirement," says Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

States spend a lot of money reinventing games and making humorous commercials to induce citizens into playing lotteries because of "jackpot fatigue." Thus, several states band together to make the prize bigger. In May, the Big Game Jackpot rose to $363 million, the largest in U.S. history. People from seven states participated. Lines formed at gas stations and convenience stores for several days before the drawing.

"People used to get excited about $5-million and $10-million jackpots," says Ronald A. Reno, 35, senior research analyst with Focus on the Family. "Now people don’t get excited until it gets over $100 million. So you’ve got this vicious cycle of constantly having to raise the ante and increase the hype in the marketing. You reach a threshold, and for the hard-core gambler what used to excite, no longer does. And you now need to raise the level of excitement to achieve the same level they experienced a year or two earlier."

Despite the convenience and pervasiveness of lotteries, it is casinos that take in the largest chunk of gambling revenues. Regular casinos account for 40 percent of gambling revenues, while Native American establishments chip in another 13 percent. State lotteries make up 33 percent of gambling revenues; pari-mutuel betting, 9 percent; charitable wagering, 5 percent.

Casinos are the fastest-growing form of gambling. Tribal gambling, found in two dozen states, has been growing rapidly since 1987, complicated by the fact that reservations are off limits to state and local laws. Riverboat casinos, which didn’t exist before 1991, now are located in 11 states. The continued increase in the number of casinos — more than 800 now — is significant.

Legalized gambling losses totaled $54.4 billion in 1998, more than double the amount in 1991.

Gaining acceptance
Gambling has gained respectability after a relaxation of laws. For instance, Missouri and Illinois dropped requirements last year that riverboats had to be functional. California voters in March sanctioned Indian tribes to operate slot machines and card games on reservations.

Candidates and political parties were equally guilty of accepting more than $14 million in "soft money" from gambling interests between 1995 and 1999. In May, a former governor was convicted of extorting nearly $3 million from entrepreneurs seeking riverboat casino licenses.

States often seek to make gambling more palatable by promising that funds will be used for public education.

It’s gone beyond the scope of simply being a benign activity to being a "benevolent activity," Reno says. "Now it’s ‘gamble for the kids.’ If they can obfuscate what the activity is and focus on the ‘net benefit,’ it’s going to be a lot more palatable to the public. It masks the insidious nature of the activity."

Gambling has also lavished funds on good causes to enlist the support of leaders. United Way held a Capitol Hill luncheon in February to honor the casino industry for its contributions to the charity.

The transformation from sinful activity to recreational pursuit has been successful. In a Gallup Poll last year, only 29 percent concluded that "gambling is immoral." Three out of four people agreed that gambling is a form of entertainment "no better or no worse than other activities."

Yet as gambling becomes more prevalent, so do its ABCs: addiction, bankruptcy and crime.

Last year the National Gambling Impact Study Commission found that 13 percent of those betting at casinos, racetracks or lottery outlets are "problem or pathological" gamblers. Another 18 percent are "at risk" for developing a gambling addiction.

The social price tag related to gambling addiction is staggering, says Reno. They include such factors as compulsive addicts embezzling from their employers, abusing their spouses and neglecting their children.

U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R.-Va.), 61, has been the staunchest gambling opponent in Congress since his election in 1980, and he says gambling has the potential to destroy more than families.

"Gambling is an issue that literally can touch every segment of our society," Wolf says. He sponsored the legislation to create the national study commission.

Compulsive gambling is an addiction with a potential for rapid destruction. Bettors can lose their earthly possessions in a matter of hours. An estimated two-thirds of compulsive gamblers turn to crime at some time to support their habit or to pay off debts. One in five gambling addicts attempts suicide.

New forms of temptation
Internet gambling — which is operated by offshore, unregulated companies — has been around only since 1995, but is growing rapidly. Revenues hit $1.2 billion last year. Last November, the U.S. Senate passed the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, one of 70 proposals made to Congress by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission in June 1999. The House this year is working on a similar bill that would prohibit the use of credit cards for wagers over the Internet.

More than 700 gambling websites, originating in places such as Antigua and Australia, try to lure computer users with advertisements for betting on college football games to playing blackjack. The legal betting age varies from 18 to 21, depending on the state. But no laws exist to prevent minors from using credit card numbers to gamble, and some of the websites have cartoon character graphics such as the Pink Panther and Betty Boop to attract children.

"Internet gambling is absolutely not regulated," Lorenz says. "So the person who is making the bet and giving his credit card has no assurance that if he wins, he will be paid. It is a one-way street, built on trust. Why would you want to trust someone who is doing something illegal?"

Lorenz faults legislators for failure to warn young people of the dangers of online gambling.

"If there were opportunities to buy cocaine or marijuana over the Internet can you imagine how our law enforcement people and public policymakers would respond?" she says. "But because it is gambling it is viewed as a lesser danger."

Youth also are among the biggest partakers of sports betting. Acting upon another recommendation of the national gambling study panel, the Senate Commerce Committee voted in April to outlaw bets placed in Nevada (the only state where such wagering is legal) on Olympic, college and high school competition. Illegal bookmaking is believed to make up 97 percent of the betting on college games each year. Odds are listed in nearly every sports section for what team is favored to win that day’s contests.

It’s not surprising that technologically savvy teen-agers, raised in an environment where gambling is not only socially acceptable but state-sponsored, are twice as likely to develop a gambling addiction as adults, according to the national study. There are 1.1 million pathological gamblers ages 12-18.

Teen-age boys typically bet on illegal sports and girls on lotteries, Lorenz says. Both sexes play poker machines. "As they get into the college ages we find they are doing a lot of online gambling, typically in the college library or at home with their computers," she says. "They can do this casino gambling and sports betting over the Internet."

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission discovered that problem gambling also affects the elderly in disproportionate numbers. "At first it became apparent that we’re seeing more senior citizen gamblers, typically, a widow or widower," Lorenz says. "But in the past year we’ve also been seeing senior citizen couples where both of them become compulsive gamblers."

Gambling impacts more than teens and the elderly. "We are seeing more people in their early 30s who have young children and as a result of their gambling addiction there is child neglect," says Lorenz, whose center is connected with the nation’s longest-running residential treatment program for pathological gamblers. "It might be abuse, and sometimes even physical abuse, but most often it’s leaving a child alone for several hours on end."

Turning the tide
Gambling would be perhaps more widespread if not for the efforts of Tom Grey of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. Since 1992, the 59-year-old former United Methodist Church minister has traveled the country, mobilizing congregations of various denominations to fight referenda from much better financed opponents seeking to introduce gambling in their states.

Grey is more optimistic than in the early 1990s, when state governments flocked to allow gambling in their states.

"There was no opposition then," Grey says. "It was the wave of the future, the force of history." He is encouraged by the national commission study that urges governments to impose a moratorium on gambling expansion without extensive studies first.

While the study of the nine-member panel, which included Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, carries no force of law, Grey contends it provides a powerful signal. "It is a document that we can use as ammunition," he says. "It’s a national commission, so the anti-gambling people can’t just say we’re a bunch of do-gooders and everything we say is anecdotal."

The study has helped to galvanize gambling foes, Grey says. "Not only have we networked strong opposition, we’ve been able to do it among liberals and conservatives."

Lorenz agrees that momentum has shifted.

"Communities and anti-gambling forces are saying enough is enough and we are not just going to stop the increase but we are going to reverse this legalization of gambling," Lorenz says. Christians have played key roles in fighting back in South Carolina and Alabama.

State battlegrounds
Last October, Alabama voters rejected a referendum to start a state lottery. Grey, who lives in Rockford, Ill., helped unify clergy from across the religious spectrum to preach about the immorality of gambling.

"As in other states, usually the churches provide the troops," says Grey, an army infantry commander during the Vietnam War who likes to use military metaphors. "Right now it’s just guerrilla warfare. I’m hopeful churches will join as the infantry for our fight."

In South Carolina in July the state Supreme Court effectively outlawed the 34,000 video poker machines. The machines had been located in beauty shops, pizza parlors and bowling alleys.

Some South Carolina Christians voiced opposition because they had been devastated by gambling. "It wasn’t only ‘the derelicts of society’ who were having problems," Reno says. "It was the moms and dads and kids sitting within their own pews."

Churches in South Dakota are spearheading an effort to remove video lottery games in a November vote. If the measure passes, 9,000 machines would be taken out, making South Dakota the first state to curtail a lottery.

"In South Dakota it’s going to be winner take all," Grey says. "If we lose there, it shows that it’s going to be very difficult to rout gambling. We can stop expansion in most cases. But to rout it out, it is going to be very hard unless the church and civic groups enter in."

Much remains to be done to mobilize churches around the country. A 1999 Gallup Poll indicated that 58 percent of those claiming that religion is "very important" to them have bought a lottery ticket and 32 percent have gambled at a casino. Reno says many Christians don’t rate gambling as harmful as some other behaviors.

"If you go into a conservative evangelical church and talk about homosexuality or abortion, you’ve got 90 percent of the people with you," Reno says. "If you go in and talk about gambling, it’s about 70 percent and the others are saying, ‘What’s the big deal?’ "

The ubiquity of gambling is beneficial in one regard, Reno believes. "The more firsthand knowledge they have, the more their convictions are strengthened. The more people are exposed to the truth about legalized gambling, the more negative their reaction to it becomes."

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John W. Kennedy is general editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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