Nanny State

Crying Wolf Again on Gambling

The prohibitionists are at it again.


We've all heard the complaints about casinos. They're big, sleazy places with flashing lights, endless supplies of booze and skimpily clad waitresses—all designed to dupe the unwary into surrendering piles of cash. Not only that, but their presence fosters crime, lowers property values and siphons spending away from local businesses.

A recent report commissioned by the Institute for American Values argued that casinos "are associated with a range of negative health, economic, political, intellectual and social outcomes." In short: bad, bad, bad. So if we are going to allow gambling, there must be a better outlet for it.

How about the Internet, where participants can indulge their habits from the privacy of their homes, without inflicting a gaudy emporium on some unfortunate community? No large neon-clad buildings, no magnet for muggers, no fallout on adjacent neighborhoods, no shuttered storefronts.

But that's out too. Betting over the Internet from the comfort of home, we are told, carries harms and dangers that are equally bad if not worse. Online gambling, warned an editorial in The Christian Science Monitor, "allows easier, more anonymous accessibility to wagering than do casinos or lotteries. With the click of the mouse, a teenager at home could become a gambling addict, despite any promised safeguards."

Fortunately, there's another option, which has already taken hold in Illinois: small cafes that bear less resemblance to Caesars Palace Las Vegas than to a modern coffeehouse. They are "cozy, well-lit spots with names like Stella's Place, Emma's Eatery, Dotty's and Betty's Bistro," reported Matthew Walberg and Ray Long in The Chicago Tribune. They provide video gambling in a setting designed to appeal to women, offering coffee, wine and snacks in a low-key environment.

For those opposed to casinos and online wagering, it may sound like a dream come true—safe, public and unobtrusive. But to those who take a dim view of gambling, what appear to be virtues are actually vices.

"They tell themselves they're just popping down to get a scone or see a friend or get some time away from the kids, but what they're really doing is engaging in the same kinds of activities as they would at a casino," Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, told The Tribune.

Anita Bedell, who runs Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems, noted that many women avoid bars. "But these are labeled as country kitchens or upscale Starbucks, and that's why they're getting approved," she said. "They're coming into neighborhoods, by shopping malls and schools, and it's making gambling too accessible in communities."

Here we see the common problem of all these avenues: They allow competent adults an easy means to wager if they want to. The critics would prefer the good old days, when the only way to satisfy the urge was to make the expensive journey to Sin City, Nev. Ever since legal gambling began proliferating, they've been crying wolf. But in stark contrast to the outcome of the fable, the wolf has failed to appear.

The image we get from these advocates is that the more available legal gambling is the more destruction ensues. Given our latent puritanical distrust of harmless pleasures, that may sound eminently plausible, but it isn't true.

A 2011 article by Harvard Medical School researchers Howard Shaffer and Ryan Martin in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology concluded 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."

Anyone tempted to bet on games of chance now has a raft of choices, from slot machines to racetracks to state lotteries to video poker. But the expansion of legal gambling has failed to litter the landscape with more desperate addicts burning through the mortgage money.

Why not? When I called Shaffer in 2011, he told me that gambling is different from other compulsive habits. "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."

Of course, it's always possible for a respectable soccer mom to venture into a comfy little shop in search of respite, only to end up squandering funds every day on an unbreakable addiction. But it's probably too late to ban Starbucks.