Backlash Grows against 'Convenience Gambling' ; Concern over Social Costs of Gambling Prompts a Second Look at Videopoker

Article excerpt

Poker players like to say there's "a time to hold 'em and a time to fold 'em," and the same appears to be true with a growing political backlash against gambling.

Just a year ago, Alabama and South Carolina voted out governors because of their opposition to legalized gambling. Now, both states have seen a major change in public opinion and action against state- approved gambling. In nearby Tennessee, the push to jump aboard the lottery bandwagon failed this year. Thirty-three parishes in Louisiana have gotten rid of video poker.

While church groups have been involved, it's not just a Bible Belt phenomenon. In South Dakota, Montana, and Oregon there are efforts to dump video poker as well. And in Washington next week, NCAA officials will meet with opponents of legal gambling to craft legislation that would end college sports betting in Nevada and New Jersey.

"If there is a trend, I would love to see it," says William Thompson, a political scientist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Dr. Thompson has studied gambling and is not opposed to resort casinos. But the rapid growth in what is called "convenience gambling" in the past decade - instant lotteries, video poker, and slot machines in corner grocery stores and other outlets frequented by children - is another matter.

"It would be very healthy for our nation to see a backlash aimed at convenience gambling, very healthy," says Thompson.

Why this new turn after years of gambling growth in the US? Part of it has to do with the social costs of gambling. In South Dakota, for example, a study shows that while video poker adds $92 million a year to government coffers, it actually costs $272 million in crime, bankruptcies, welfare, and treatment for gambling addiction.

Here in Oregon, a state with a relatively small population, there are an estimated 80,000 problem gamblers, and the number of Gamblers Anonymous chapters jumped from three to 30 within five years of the introduction of video poker (one of the most addictive forms of gambling).

A national problem

Nationwide, there are more than 5 million pathological or problem gamblers - half of them young people - and another 15 million are at risk of becoming problem gamblers, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

But it usually takes at least three years after new forms of gambling are in place before the social and economic effects begin to appear - by which time state officials have become reliant on this "free" form of revenue.

"It's a silent epidemic, a shameful epidemic," says Greg Kafoury, a lawyer in Portland, Ore., who is leading the effort to get a ballot initiative outlawing video gambling on next year's ballot here. …