Addicted to Lotteries

By Amberg, Richard | Insight on the News, September 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Addicted to Lotteries


Amberg, Richard, Insight on the News


Lotteries make bettors feel lucky and slick ads encourage addicts -- so say members of a commission Investigating state-sponsored gambling.

In 1992, truck driver Charles Ramsey of Dale City, Va., beat 1-in-7 million odds to win a $1 million Lotto jackpot. With his winnings, he continued to play the lottery, and in June he won the $100,000 Cash 5 jackpot, becoming the first person to win the top two prizes since the Lotto game began in 1990. The odds of winning both games with just two tickets would be about 1 in 2 trillion, says Virginia Lottery economist Sharyn Campbell. But Ramsey plays so often, the chances of him winning twice was closer to one in 200,000.

Years earlier, a 16-year-old boy in Atlantic City took $6,000 -- four years' worth of newspaper delivery earnings -- out of a bank account and spent all the money on lottery tickets in a single day. He lost and killed himself that evening by slitting his wrists.

These stories represent opposite extremes of the pathological gambler: Ramsey the dream, the boy the nightmare. Now the federal government has begun to challenge state-sponsored gambling. This summer, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, organized by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, and former Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat, issued a report criticizing state lotteries for their role in pathological gambling. The commission found 5.4 million Americans are considered pathological or problem gamblers and another 15.4 million Americans are at risk of becoming problem gamblers.

Valerie C. Lorenz, an expert on pathological gambling who has studied the problem for nearly three decades, believes the reintroduction of the lottery has changed social attitudes toward gambling, helping to legalize other gambling activities and encouraging a supply of future gamblers.

"They become so out of control," says Lorenz. "When someone drinks too much, at some point they pass out. If someone gambles to the point of being out of control, they will try to win it back. They chase their losses, and in a 48-hour period the losses can become huge."

Among the commissioners' suggestions to state lotteries:

* Limit locations for lottery machines, curtail growth of new lottery games and reduce advertising.

* Reduce the number of lottery agents in low-income areas.

* Create a private-citizen oversight board to make data-based decisions on games and marketing strategies.

* Ban instant scratch-and-win games that are simulations of live card or other casino-type games.

* Enact harsh penalties for selling lottery tickets to a minor.

Since New Hampshire began a modern-day lottery in 1964, 37 other states and the District of Columbia have devised gambling schemes. In total, U.S. lotteries make up the largest gambling operation in history, generating $34 billion collectively in 1997. …

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