If Poker Is a Public Health Issue, What Isn't?

In a front-page story published yesterday, The New York Times notes that the Justice Department's recent reversal concerning the reach of the Wire Act may encourage states to legalize online poker and other forms of Internet gambling. While the Times suggests the payoff for state treasuries will be modest, it also notes that legalization will help protect consumers:

Supporters of online gambling say the current estimates may undercount how many people would play poker online. Many of the forecasts are based on how many people have played on illegal Web sites in the past. But placing bets on illegal Web sites requires a leap of faith — that the electronic cards are shuffled fairly, that other players cannot see your hand and that the Web site will pay you if you win. Legal, well-regulated Web sites, supporters say, would attract more players.

In fact, the proposal to legalize online poker in Iowa is more about protecting consumers than about raising money, said State Senator Jeff Danielson, a Democrat from the Cedar Falls area who is drafting a bill. “We are not doing this to expand our state budget," he said. "Our purpose is to make sure every Iowan who wants to play poker has a fair game, has protections, and, if they win, is able to retain those earning in a fair and safe way."

So far, so good. But the Times immediately adds that "Iowa has studied the potential impact of online poker on public health." In what sense is poker a "public health" issue? The 2011 study to which the Times refers, "Internet Poker: A Public Health Perspective," explains:

Numerous studies have shown associations between problem gambling and a variety of adverse consequences or comorbid conditions including substance use and abuse, emotional and mental health problems, physical health problems, relationship difficulties, criminal behavior, financial problems, and loss of productivity… As with many other conditions, the adverse consequences associated with problem gambling behaviors affect not only the gambler but also the gamblers’ social groups such as family, friends, coworkers, and community members. In a recent survey, 22% of adult Iowans said they have been negatively affected by the gambling behavior of a family member, friend, or someone else they know.

See? Heavy gambling, itself a "condition," may lead to health problems, and its consequences may affect other people. Hence poker is a public health issue. This sort of slippery reasoning is troubling, notwithstanding the fact that the Iowa report is a pretty evenhanded discussion of how legalization might affect gambling patterns. A concept of "public health" that is broad enough to encompass poker is broad enough to encompass anything. The phrase becomes synonymous with "public welfare" or “the common good," an empty vessel big enough to accommodate all manner of meddling. But while it is generally understood that different people have different concepts of public welfare or the common good, based on value judgments as well as facts, "public health" lends a quasi-medical, pseudoscientific patina to moralistic and paternalistic policies, making them seem like the products of empirical investigation and expert knowledge, not to be questioned by laymen. Add to that illusion of objectivity the assumption that "public health" threats require a government response (an assumption that stems from the field’s roots in fighting communicable diseases), and you have a pretty potent recipe for tyranny.

For more on this theme, see my 2007 Reason essay "An Epidemic of Meddling," which cites gambling as an example of public health's wide reach. The idea that poker is analogous to malaria seemed novel in 1999, when the addiction specialists David Korn and Howard Shaffer published "Gambling and the Health of the Public" in the Journal of Gambling Studies. Now it is taken for granted, at least in The New York Times.

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  • o3||

    "hence poker is a public health issue."
    _

    no, but gambling addiction is.

  • Only when...||

    government forces you to be responsible for your neighbors bad habbits.

  • ||

    cant tell if serios

  • ||

    This face is useful when people are being stupid IRL too.

  • ||

    Public employees working in "public health" wish to define the term so broadly that it encompasses everything. Why am I not surprised?

  • ||

    "When fascism comes to America, it will arrive in a white coat with a stethoscope."

  • Y-not||

    And the nametag will say "Tony".

  • ||

    And the nametag will say "Tony".

    And it will be on up-side down.

  • annonymous commenter some guy||

    That nametag was stolen, wasn't it?

  • ||

    Why do you think Hugh Laurie mysteriously arrives to play a doctor in a dramatic role?

  • ||

    Because his Blackadder stint was over?

  • ||

    That ended years before. It's all about becoming Doctor-King of America.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This is supposedly the last year for House.

  • ||

    What a coincidence! We pass socialized healthcare, giving absolute power to the health czar, we build up Mr. Laurie as the ultimate in doctoring, and his series ends just in time to assume the highest office.

  • Tim||

    "Doc why do you care about which websites I visit?"

    " The Government requires us to gather that data, but its kept strictly confidential."

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Indeed, everything is a public health issue now.

    In unrelated news: Obamacare.

  • Tim||

    I want to play online poker while eating Foie Gras.

  • Gojira||

    You're no true friend of liberty.

    I'm going to play online poker while downloading movies, eating foie gras, smoking weed, figuring out how to cheat on my taxes, and fucking my gay husband (he's gay, but I'm not, but we are married).

  • Doctor Whom||

    May I please watch? (washes monocle in the tears of the 99%)

  • Gojira||

    Damn, I forgot to mention the monocle.

    Did I mention though, that I would be doing all of this from my mansion in...SOMALIA!

  • ||

    But it'll only be truly libertarian if you're in possession of unlicensed automatic firearms. Don't forget that, please, Jim. We need you!

  • Scooby||

    Mere firearms? Libertarians are only satisfied by privately owned nuclear weapons.

  • ||

    You forgot to fuck the goat you married too.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Your goat's probably of age, you statist prick.

  • ||

    Yeah, but my donkey isn't!

  • tarran||

  • Tim||

    Good grief. You should be in an indefinite detention center and forced to take gubmint approved medications.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Statist idiots send my blood pressure skyrocketing. Therefore, their statist idiocy is a public-health issue.

  • ||

    Exceptional idea, Doc. I totally agree. I propose that we push Congress to ban statism, the number-one public health issue since hippies.

  • Puzzled||

    I wonder what the correlation is between the set of people whose gambling leads to "substance use and abuse, emotional and mental health problems, physical health problems, relationship difficulties, criminal behavior, financial problems, and loss of productivity", and the set of people who will not gamble due to it being illegal. I suspect it is vanishingly small.

  • ryan||

    You know what the number one cause of all those problems is? People being alive.

    Killbot 2012

  • Public Health Official||

    Your logic does not validate my world-view. I therefore reject it, declare that it is nonsense, and dismiss it out of hand.

  • ||

    I remember when they started allowing more casinos in BC, they really ramped up the PSAs about gambling addition. They too have it organized under the Ministry of Public Safety along with lots of other creepy Big Brothery stuff. Yeah, sorry Mom and Dad, not moving back there any time soon.

  • ||

    Say, how come you and Aresen never use British spellings? I mean, "organized?" It gives fodder to those who suspect that you are Canadian spies.

  • ||

    I codeswitch depending on my audience. Plus I hate getting the angry squiggly lines under colour or cheque.

    It is very snowy in Seattle right now and I just encountered an American who thought "toboggan" was a totally strange and hilarious word. Huh? We have those in the US, right?

  • ||

    People from non-snow regions will not know what that is, most likely.

    I had several as a kid. If you have a good one, they rock.

  • ||

    Would it be weird to talk about "going tobogganing" here? (I am inclined to think not and my friend is just a goofball because Firefox isn't giving me squigglies for "tobogganing.")

  • ||

    I'm familiar with that term.

  • Doctor Whom||

    We used that term when I was a kid in Maryland.

  • ||

    I'd think it would make sense to run more PSAs about something after it might become more common. Assuming you think it's legit to run PSAs at all.

  • ||

    Come on Tulpa, you know the answer to this. With private funds, pay for all the stupid and patronizing PSAs you want.

  • ||

    Well yeah, if you don't support government PSAs in the first place you're not going to like that policy.

    To me, they're among the least objectionable govt overreaches. They don't cost that much, but their visibility invites disproportionate criticism.

  • ||

    They offend because they are so parental and presumptive. Government does a lot of things it has no business doing, and telling people how much eating/drinking/smoking/gambling/doing anything the fuck at all is "responsible" is telling us we're likely not fit to make our own decisions and that the state has some stake in our collective wellbeing (as they define it, of course). Both of those messages are bad. It's not the dollar value outlay that is the biggest problem, it is the creep factor.

  • ||

    Of course, only online gambling, and poker in bars and other multi-use private facilities, constitute a threat to public health.

    Gambling in state lotteries and state-sanctioned casinos who generously contribute to incumbents' campaigns is healthy.

  • Ashlyn||

    The resulting tears and sobbing have been shown to clear the sinuses.

  • ||

    [NYT] In fact, the proposal to legalize online poker in Iowa is more about protecting consumers than about raising money, said State Senator Jeff Danielson, a Democrat from the Cedar Falls area who is drafting a bill. “We are not doing this to expand our state budget," he said. "Our purpose is to make sure every Iowan who wants to play poker has a fair game, has protections, and, if they win, is able to retain those earning in a fair and safe way."

    [Reason] So far, so good.

    Don't you mean so far so complete and utter shit? Or so far up your backside he's reaching into your back pocket from the inside?

    The rest of the world can make judgements about where to place their bets. However citizens of the over-coddled states need to be protected from that choice, because they are fat and stupid and have smelly feet.

  • H man||

    Is this game like six degrees of Kevin Bacon?

    Riding a bike can lead to road accidents. Therefore riding a bike is a public health issue.

  • ||

    In most places it is. In many places helmet are mandatory and in most places it is a crime to let your kid ride without one.

  • H man||

    Yeah that was an easy one. Hmm singing kareoke can lead to ear damage of the listeners. Therefore kareoke is a public health issue.

  • Loki||

    ...placing bets on illegal Web sites requires a leap of faith — that the electronic cards are shuffled fairly, that other players cannot see your hand and that the Web site will pay you if you win. Legal, well-regulated Web sites, supporters say, would attract more players.

    Only true if you accept the premise that government regulations are the best way to prevent private companies from engaging in bad behavior. I would think the fact that once word gets out that a poker site cheats its players the lost business as people stop using their site would be motivation enough to encourage honesty.

    I see this mindset all the time in the aerospace industry wrt commercial spaceflight. People seem to think that if the government doesn't control everything that the private rockets will be blowing up left and right. But who's really more likely to care about safety: private corporations whose profits and business could be in jeopardy if people get the impression that they're rockets aren't safe, or a government bureacracy whose funding will not be cut in the event of an accident killing a few astronauts. Profit motive: how does it work?

  • ||

    I consistently made money on pokerstars without using any helper software, and they even paid me money after the us governement seized their domain, so I can attest to the fact that this particular experiment with anarchy worked swimmingly.

  • ||

    everytime you show that pokerstars screenshot, it makes me sad, since I realize that the chances of me ever playing poker on that particular website are vanishingly small, and I remember all the good times I had doing so.

  • Gone Fishing||

    The worlds gone mad, check out this website where they teach you all the right techniques to make sure you win more often

    http://4691cbmbjfv2id591p29ncz.....kbank.net/

  • UK-Poker||

    Online poker is legal in other countries such as the UK, so surely it's easy to figure out what type of effect it would have on US public health...

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