Mixed feelings on the rise of gambling

Gambling in the United States, by state.  Yellow:  All types of gambling legal   Some types of gambling legal   All types of gambling illegal

Gambling in the United States, by state:
Yellow: All types of gambling legal
Green: Some types of gambling legal
Red: All types of gambling illegal
Map: Theshibboleth, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

As part of Monday’s pre-election coverage on NCPR David Chanatry explored an interesting question: “Casinos: how did we get here from Las Vegas?” Here’s how he framed it:

If you’re a person of a certain age—say about 50—you’ll remember when going to the casino meant a trip all the way to Las Vegas. It seems almost quaint now, but just a generation ago, casinos were outlawed in 49 of 50 states. Only Nevada allowed legalized gambling.

Then, in 1978, amid great controversy, New Jersey decided to authorize a casino in hopes of rejuvenating the faded resort town of Atlantic City

The next day voters in New York approved a constitutional amendment that will permit more casinos in their state.

I am a person of a certain age and I hail from one of the last two states to prohibit all forms of gambling.

Gambling gets re-hashed at practically every session of Hawaii’s state legislature. And it’s funny, because for many decades now the number one visitor destination for Hawaii residents is said to be…Las Vegas. (They aren’t going to enjoy hikes in the desert.)

Why the double standard? My theory goes like this: the cost of living in Hawaii is quite high. Given the chance to solve money woes by chasing lady luck, the powers-that-be suspect Hawaii’s poor might squander the rent, desperately trying to change their circumstances. It’s too dangerous.


Las Vegas airport. Photo: Greg, via creative commons, some restrictions.

Getting to Las Vegas from Hawaii takes something in the range of $600 or more (per person), a minimal stake that acts as a safety valve. The got-nothing-to-spare set has to stay home. Of course there’s still plenty of illegal gambling in the islands and office football pools are perfectly common, if technically illegal.

When we moved to Ontario back in 1999 I remember being quite offended by a word problem on calculating odds in our son’s grade school textbook. (Yes, there’s an element of math in gambling, but how dare the school board normalize…oh, yeah. That IS normal here!)

It took me a few years to buy my first lottery ticket, which still felt illicit. If I had personal qualms, why did I try it? Well, because I could, I suppose. Because my inability to buy one had become residual principle mixed with ingrained fear. I had to make sure my choice wasn’t ruled by cowardice.

Having run into few forms of mild addiction in my time (hello chocolate!) I apply some caution to new experiences. The seductively enticing game of Tetris has given me grief. (So many hours wasted, muttering: “Just one more game to break my score and I’ll step away from the computer.” Shades of “get thee behind me, Satan!”)

When it came to lotteries, thinking about temptation, goals and outcomes seemed worthwhile. It turned out I could easily ignore all lotteries – until there was a huge pot with a lot of buzz. At which point, I’d occasionally buy a ticket, on the true (but incomplete) notion “you can’t win unless you play.”

Eventually I abandoned even that. I concluded that winning half a million might be great. You know, kill the mortgage, enjoy more travel. But winning $50 million could be a real disaster. (Friendships might founder. One might be buffeted by demands. My own greed could run wild. Yuck.)

Most readers are probably willing to run the risk of landing a mega-jackpot! A big win does not have to be a dark cloud wrapped in a silver lining. But – for me – the happiness of ordinary circumstances seems more reliable than the swings of huge financial change. I haven’t bought a lottery ticket in years.

Mind you, lots of folks know how to manage gambling as harmless entertainment. I see friends who earmark a modest, fixed amount. They spend an occasional evening at a casino using that up — that much and no more, win or lose. Having had their fun, they go home, satisfied. It can be done.

And yet, I find it very difficult to adjust to the new normal, where gambling (or the industry-preferred term of gaming) is concerned. It still feels funny, not quite right.

Oh, I get the arguments: “people have the right to choose their actions”, “gambling will happen whether it’s legal or not”, “why not use profits for social good rather than let shady mobsters have it?” and “it’s hardly different than drinking, also regulated and taxed by government.”

Having said all that, I’m still uncomfortable when government actually encourages, sponsors – whatever you want to call it – vice.

That’s a strong word, proof of my own stodgy, Puritanical background. But I struggle to see gambling in positive terms. To me it’s sort of like obesity: very common and clearly on the rise. Not something to criminalize! Both obesity and gambling seem contrary to optimal health.

How do you square the contradiction of government encouraging us to reduce our intake of salt or sugar – while opening more casinos?

How do you handle any temptations gambling may present?

Lastly, if you like lotteries, what’s a good sum you could enjoy winning?

That’s an area where Canadians come out ahead, their lottery winnings are tax-free!

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3 Comments on “Mixed feelings on the rise of gambling”

  1. Dan Murphy says:

    It is not exactly and apples to apples contradiction that the government is trying to limit salt and sugar intact, while getting involved in gambling.

    It is estimated that only 3.5% of Americans are gambling addicts, or problem gamblers. Meaning that 96.5% of us can enjoy casinos and lottery without negative effects. I don’t think that you will find that many doctors that will go on record saying that 96.5% of Americans will not see negative health effects from huge levels of trans-fats, sugar, or salt (I’m not really for the government regulating those items either, but I do see the benefit).

    I handle the temptation the same way that I handle the temptation to eat an entire sheet of pizza, or drive 100 mph, or punch my neighbor in the neck. I am an adult, I am responsible for my own actions, and can grasp the concept of “actions result in consequences”

    In regard to your question about how much would be too much to win. If you think that there is an amount that you would not enjoy winning, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If you think that you could not handle the consequences of winning, then why would you even play?

    Give your $2 to a stranger and make their day, you will get more enjoyment.

  2. Ken Hall says:

    I observe that Lucy and Dan apparently subscribe to the mind altering manta perpetuated by the non stop marketing industry that all “thinking” humans have the “free will” to be, do, accomplish all that is possible in the “freedom” loving USA.

    Anyone who has helped raise children in this age of targeted marketing of any and all of the tripe huckstered by the capitalist free enterprise system of “buyer be ware” must have observed that the primary targets of the marketing ploys are the uninformed and under educated. Why do marketers target children? Obviously because they are the least informed, minimally educated and gullible humans most readily convinced that black is white and white is black, that eating at a fast food emporium is far preferable to preparing and eating a meal at home or that clothing sans a brand name insignia marks you as an inferior human not to be associated with by others in the know. It seems to me that the cigarette/tobacco industry nailed that concept many many years ago and it definitely worked for them.

    I submit that although the marketing industry on the behalf of states, countries, localities, corporate interests, governments, politicians, ., ., ., and even religions want you to “think/believe” that you have the free will to make the decisions to do something or not, it is but a an illusion. Were it not for the success of the marketing gurus, with the help of psychology, the landfills would not contain the inordinate quantities of worthless junk foisted upon us especially at this the most hyped marketing season of the year, which now gets under way prior to Halloween, “christmas”.

    I do applaud Dan’s suggestion “Give your $2 to a stranger and make their day, you will get more enjoyment” and on the offhand chance you don’t know of any, their emissaries are once again ringing bells at the entrances to shopping facilities; give to them rather than to the 1%ers emissaries at the “gaming” parlors.

  3. Ron Shirtz says:

    State approved or sponsored gambling is nothing less than the state exploiting a person’s addiction to gain retro-tax revenue, just like sin taxes on cigarettes and alcohol.

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