The Real Effects of Gambling

Don't believe the hype. The epidemic of pathological gambling is hugely exaggerated.


Gambling has proliferated in America in recent years, and it's not about to stop. The Illinois legislature has approved a bill authorizing more casinos as well as slot machines at race tracks. Ohio has four new casinos in the pipeline. Maine voters approved a new one last year. Massachusetts lawmakers plan to consider a gambling expansion this fall.

To critics, this spells trouble: more gambling, more problem gamblers, and more of the calamitous social ills that follow. But the fear stems from the assumption that demand inexorably rises to match supply—that each new gambling site increases the number of people who gamble and the amount of money they bet. That, we have learned, is not quite how human beings respond.

The latest news comes from Howard Shaffer, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His recent article, co-authored by Harvard colleague Ryan Martin in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, offers reassuring evidence.

"The current available evidence," they found, "suggests that the rate of PG (pathological gambling) has remained relatively stable during the past 35 years despite an unprecedented increase in opportunities and access to gambling."

I called Shaffer, one of the country's leading experts on this and other addictions, to ask what citizens should expect when gambling expands in their states. He does not sound alarmed.

"When gambling becomes newly available in an area, you'll see some increase in gambling," he says. "Some people who would not have gambled become willing to try." That's especially true in places that (unlike Illinois) had no legal gambling before. But the effect, contrary to myth, soon subsides.

"I was so wrong about this when I started this work," Shaffer admits. He expected it would take generations for people to adjust their behavior in response to greater availability. In fact, "people gambling on the Internet change from gambling more to less in weeks. We never would have predicted that."

Online access is a good test of the alleged hazards of allowing people to wager on games of chance. It is said to be particularly dangerous because it is anonymous, immune to supervision, and accessible anytime, anywhere. "With virtual casinos entering the homes of millions every day, the chances for addiction are only going to increase," warns CRC Health Group, which offers treatment for problem gambling.

"We expected it to be the Wild West of gambling," Shaffer recalls. "People could sit in front of a computer with a credit card and just go."

Online gambling is illegal in the United States. But in the countries where it's allowed, most people take a pass. "People discover it isn't that much fun to gamble alone," he notes, except for those with social problems. "The extent of Internet gambling for most is astoundingly moderate."

Another surprise for Shaffer was that in most cases, problem gambling is not "a relentless progressive disorder." If you smoke a few cigarettes, you'll probably soon be smoking every day. If you shoot heroin a couple of times, pretty soon you won't be able to live without it. But for the vast majority of those who gamble, control comes easy.

"It's a problem people react to," Shaffer reports. In fact, he says, "Problem gamblers are more likely to get better than worse."

Some problem gamblers, of course, do get worse, with harmful and even disastrous consequences for themselves and those around them. But Shaffer suggests that excessive gambling is not a highly contagious malady that can infect anyone who enters a casino. It's usually a symptom of some underlying disorder.

"Of people in the U.S. with gambling problems, about 75 percent had a mental health problem first and a gambling problem second," he notes. That, it stands to reason, makes efforts to outlaw gambling a pointless enterprise. He says that "some problem gamblers would have difficulties with gambling or something else even if there were no legal gambling available."

In any case, the epidemic of pathological gambling is hugely exaggerated. Studies indicate, according to Shaffer, that about 5 percent of Americans will ever have a gambling problem. Compare that with about 8.5 percent who suffer from alcohol problems annually and 25 percent who smoke cigarettes.

Allowing more casinos and other gambling opportunities is not likely to produce the great economic benefits often promised. But as a way of accommodating consumer preferences without serious social side effects, it's a pretty safe bet.


NEXT: But What Am I?

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  1. Because so many of you have difficulty keeping your blog comment making under control, often eschewing normative interpersonal relationships and neglecting familial and professional responsibilities, I propose legislation that enacts severe penalties for online commenting.

    1. Blog commenting destroys families!

      Won’t someone please think of the children?!?

      (Also, could the government please pass a law requiring all computer keyboards to have an interrobang key?)

      1. Why would anybody ever use it?

  2. Most of the “problem” gamblers I have come across play the ponies, not those bullshit casino games.

    1. Lottery tickets, too.

      1. The lottery isn’t gambling, though. It’s a tax on stupid people.

        1. I think the lottery was a way of ending organized crime’s numbers racket. Too bad they can’t do the same thing with drugs and prostitution.

          1. Actually the lottery goes way back to the Colonial era. The Revolutionary War was largely funded by lotteries. The gangsters stepped in when lotteries were outlawed during the temperance era.

            And don’t forget, New Hampshire started the first modern lottery – for the children.

            1. We’re not talking about Shirley Jackson.

          2. It would work better if the state didn’t give such shitty payouts.

            State lotteries – doing what organized crime does but treating their customers worse! Hmmm… that actually should be unsurprising.

          3. The lottery has been around for over 200 years. Even George Washington has signed some lottery tickets

    2. Or the pink sheets.

  3. Who would go to a casino these days, especially when “The House always wins” is common knowledge? If you want a fair chance of winning, just play among friends. It’s a lot more fun in my opinion, too.

  4. Man pulled over, incarcerated for driving 120 MPH.
    Nothing else happens.…..452461.php

    1. I did another bareback gangbang last night, and I still don’t have the AIDS. What’s my point?

    2. Let he among you who hasn’t tried to chase the engine governor on you german sports car cast the first stone.

      1. Mrs. Dean is trying to get someone to reflash the chip on her car. She finds the 155 mph limit . . . confining.

        1. When I pointed at that three of the top 10 cars ticketed for speeding were AMG’s, she replied that was exactly why she wanted to be able to go faster. No catchee, no tickee.

          1. Mrs. Dean can’t outrun the two-way radio. (But she sounds like a fun lady.)

            1. That, plus all the local po-po know who drives the black AMG in town.

              Still, best not argue.

    3. lol guy can’t raise $5000 bail because he blew all his money on a CLK 500 lol

  5. I’ve never understood the attraction of gambling. Don’t do it, don’t want to do it, don’t plan to get started. If I want to get rid of my money at a prolific rate, I’ll just set it on fire – I do own several lighters.

    For those who like to gamble…good luck!

    1. I’ll bet.

      1. What you did there? I see it. TIMMEH!

    2. My ex-wife dragged me to Vegas once. Once you get past the front door, all the “themed” casinos amount to is a big room full of slot machines, with no windows and no clocks. No need to go all the way to Vegas for that. Hoover Dam was cool, though.

      1. You should have checked out the swimming pool at the Tropicana.

    3. When you are addicted to someting, its easier said than done

  6. But, but, but if you make something legal then everyone will do it.
    I mean, if you make heroin legal then everyone will become a junkie, right?
    If you make gambling legal then everyone will do it.
    Even the children!
    The precious precious children!
    And the roads will start gambling too!
    Save the children and the roads!

    1. excellent story. I love the read.

  7. I bet this article is wrong. I’ll bet $1000 this article is wrong. No! $10,000!

  8. We are Lord Sunayoshi’s courtiers. We are sorry that our lord has opened such a stupid THREAD.

    After the last war we had completely lost, our lord got mental illness. Everyday, he kidnaps girls from the village. Every night he gets drunk
    and tries to chop courtiers with his katana.

    Now the lady of the house is ill in bed. The people in our country are suffering badly from famine. The neighboring Daimyos is taking advantage of this situation, they try to pass across the border and take over our land.

    Quite a few of our fellow courtiers have intention to rise in rebellion.
    We are now in dire straits. Our clan would be destroyed.

    But, don’t worry. We arranged that our Lord become a Buddhist priest.
    In his way to the temple, our skilled assassin should take his life.
    That is arranged perfectly. After that we will hail Master Monaminokami, the nephew of our lord, as our new lord. We, all courtiers, would do our best to serve this new lord with faith.

    We apologize for any inconvenience our lord may have caused you.

    Pleas wait for a while. Pleas forgive the evil deeds done by our lord.

    1. Gambling with one’s life is much more serious than gambling with one’s money. Good luck.

  9. Once hooked, its so hard to stop but THANK GOD I was able to stop.

  10. Which is the most gratifying scene in Casino?

    1) Don Rickles getting the crap beaten out of him

    2) Sharon Stone getting the crap beaten out of her

    1. 3) Joe Pesci getting the crap beaten out of him

      1. Trick question! All of them.

  11. Please excuse me , Mr.Chapman; excellent article, but on one important point you have been mis-informed.

    1. Internet gambling, in the form of online horse racing bets, is available nationwide, and has been expanding since the 1990s. Today thirty-two states use some form of licensed Internet services to help take their horse bets. In addition, no less than five states are in the process of installing online sales for their respective state lotteries. More are sure to follow.

    The idea that all Internet gambling is illegal is a fiction promulgated by the Department of Justice, which relies on highly questionable interpretation of the Wire Wager Act( 18 USC S 1084) and which, in any case, has been superseded by the so-called Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act ( 31 USC 5361 et seq).

    It is true that such games as poker and blackjack have not yet been licensed at the state level. But the District of Columbia has passed enabling legislation and is in the process of choosing an operator, so this last door is now also open. In any case, it is clear that the states have always had the power to legalize Internet gambling if they so wish, under the 10th Amendment.

    The essential point of your article, that the supposed risk of pathological gambling has long been overhyped, and even more so in regard to Internet gaming, is and remains completely sound.

    After all, if a man can’t be trusted in his own home with a few dollars of his own money, and a few hours of his own time, what in hell’s name are we doing letting him vote?

    1. what in hell’s name are we doing letting him vote?

      As long as he votes for the Right People, why not?

  12. If you shoot heroin a couple of times, pretty soon you won’t be able to live without it.

    Calling Jacob Sullum! Right over here, Mr. Sullum…

  13. I played poker with friends last week. Aggravated gambling!1!!!11! Where’s the federal titan to shackle me for life?

  14. The data shows the biggest gamblers are the legislative and executive branches.

  15. But for the vast majority of those who gamble, control comes easy.

    Yeah, I have no problem quitting. I quit every time I run out of money!

  16. “people gambling on the Internet change from gambling more to less in weeks. We never would have predicted that.”

    Somebody has never had a shiny new toy and then gotten tired of it when it gets old.

  17. I have family who thought that house-flipping for profit would be a never-ending money stream for them regard my poker-playing with abject horror.

    In the words of Ambrose Bierce, the gambling known as business looks with austere disfavor upon the business known as gambling.

    And in other news, I have a real job again. Sigh. I’ll be trying to unshackle myself from these chains into self-employment as soon as I can.

  18. Any moron who believes problem gambling is an ‘illness’ is a moron.

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