Gambling, Psychology, and State Politics. (Psychology)

By Vatz, Richard E.; Weinberg, Lee S. | USA TODAY, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Gambling, Psychology, and State Politics. (Psychology)


Vatz, Richard E., Weinberg, Lee S., USA TODAY


LEGAL GAMBLING has been increasing significantly in recent years, as have the apposed expenditures for pathological or compulsive gambling. Congress created the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC) in 1999 "to conduct a comprehensive study of the social and economic impacts of gambling in the United States." The NGISC found that, over the last three decades, lotteries have become the most-prevalent form of gambling in America and represent the poorest percentage payoff per player. Lotteries now exist in 37 states and casinos are legal in more than half the states, according to NGISC. Gambling in some form is legal in all states but Hawaii and Utah.

The University of Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions reported in 2002 that 82% of people gamble. Its previous surveys indicated much-smaller numbers, such as the findings in 1975 that 61% of the public gambled and 63% as recently as 1998. Part of the increase can be attributed to the considerable growth of lotteries.

Gambling in general thus having increased substantially over the years, it is interesting that the,desire for slot machines--even limited by venue--to help balance the budgets in state governments is often opposed even by states with extant lotteries. The battle in Maryland over whether to approve a proposal to increase legalized gambling in the form of slots has become a maelstrom, fueled by a variety of issues, but none so basic as the question of whether playing slot machines can lead to the alleged psychiatric disease called pathological or compulsive gambling.

Leading the opposition to slots, Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch wants to "study" the issue for a year first. He is motivated, according to The Washington Post, by his father's "alcohol and gambling problems which devastated the family." Thus, Busch becomes the equivalent of the reformed addict--in this case, the son of the addict--who is going to make all of Maryland pay for his perceptions or misperceptions regarding the cause of his family's difficulties.

Maryland is an interesting case for the fight over legalized slot machines. The state has run lotteries for years, and people who oppose slots, one would think, would have to justify their apparent distinguishing between the two forms of gambling.

In fact, there has been little effort to reconcile the points of view except for periodic claims that the lottery is acceptable only because it has established a "squatter's right" by being there at the current time. There are loose claims periodically that, somehow, lotteries are less addictive than slots, but this point is made sparingly.

What makes the issue more poignant at this time in Maryland and perhaps in some other locales as well is that the state is facing huge deficits and by law must come up with a balanced state budget. Compounding the frustration of those who support slots is that hundreds of millions of dollars are perceived to be lost to Maryland through its citizens going to nearby states, such as Delaware and New Jersey, and betting large amounts of money that would otherwise be bet in Maryland.

In 2002, in Delaware, the state to which slotless Marylanders often go to gamble, the Rev. Lawrence W. Wright claimed in his bribery and money laundering trial that his slot machine "addiction" made him illegally use most of the $150,000 in city grants that were given to his church in 1999 and 2000. The money had been intended for community programs, including support for senior citizens. Wright pilfered money to subsidize heavy gambling and subsidize the debts from his losses, sparing only $10,000 for social services for which the money was intended.

Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich has argued that gambling is an "adult decision" involving the willingness to resist temptation. This is rhetorically as close as a politician can get to denying the fact of compulsive gambling that is out of the control of the individual player. …

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