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Why the Debate About Expanding Legalized Gambling is a Big Deal

by in Economy & Poverty, Government Reform, Politics, Public Health & Safety
Posted on October 14, 2009 at 2:03 pm
Last Modified on October 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm

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You may have already received email from Sen. Pat Jehlen or another source about a forum that Sen. Jehlen is hosting tomorrow night (Thurs. Oct 15 from 7-9pm at Century Bank, 400 Mystic Avenue in Medford) at which State Sen. Sue Tucker, a longtime opponent of expanding legalized gambling, and State Rep Kathi-Anne Reinstein, a longtime advocate for expanded gambling, will debate the merits of proposals to legalize the slots and license casinos in Mass.

 Why should you care?  Why should you come?   If people want to gamble, shouldn’t they have the chance to do so in Massachusetts?

 Slot machines — the financial backbone of casinos, and the only hope that dog track owners have for survival in the aftermath of the State referendum ending dog racing in Mass. — are not a benign alternative to Bingo and the Lottery that proponents and the gambling industry would have us believe. 

Legalizing predatory slot machine gambling is akin to endorsing the tobacco industry’s efforts to hook smokers by lacing their cigarettes with nicotine.   Slot machines are designed to addict, and the consequences of addictive gambling are enormous — but not part of the equation that proponents of expanded gambling are publicizing.   This debate isn’t about giving people a choice; it’s about whether or not we legalize predatory business practices in order to tax their revenues.

“Every feature of a slot machine — its mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics — is calibrated to increase a gambler’s “time on device” and to encourage “play to extinction,” which is industry jargon for playing until all your money is gone. The machines have evolved from handles and reels to buttons and screens, from coins to credit cards, from a few games a minute to hundreds. Inside, complicated algorithms perform a high-tech version of “loading the dice” — deceptions no self-respecting casino would ever allow in table gambling. The machines are designed to exploit aspects of human psychology, and they do it well. In the eyes of the gaming industry, this may look like success, but it comes at great expense for gamblers.”

– Dr. Natasha Dow Schüll,
Assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the soon-to-be-released book Addiction by Design  (quoted in www.uss-mass.org/the_truth_about_slot_machines.html)

Citing the “detrimental effects of casino gambling on public health,” the Maine Medical Association, voted unanimously in 2003 to oppose opening a gambling casino in Maine.  In 2006, the Mass. Public Health Association came out in opposition to legalizing slot machines and video lottery terminals “because of the health risks to the population associated with problem gambling.” 

In opposing legalization of slot machine gambling in 2006, Marylou Sudders, former Mass. Department of Mental Health Commissioner and current President/CEO of the Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, wrote that “there is a stunning volume of research available on the adverse effects of gaming on children.  Gaming, though generally thought of as a recreational activity, is a social hazard from the perspective of child welfare, public health and public safety.  Among its effects are increased crime, ill health, family disintegration, co-addiction, and debt.  Gambling addiction touches every aspect of a child’s world, from the quality of their home life to their performance in school and their emotional, physical and mental wellbeing.”

The Commonwealth is desperate for revenue.  Selling casino licenses is, for some politicians, a “low-hanging fruit” and for others of us the proverbial apple in the Garden of Eden.   Of course, the majority of people gamble responsibly.  The problem is, legalization of slots and licensing of casinos is not about allowing responsible gambling; it is about promoting predatory gambling.   Who among us would support campaigns to increase smoking and alcohol consumption in the interest of raising State revenues?

Gambling proponents estimate windfall revenues, but they don’t talk about the adverse impact on Lottery revenues and on consumer spending on existing Mass. businesses if residents take their discretionary spending to casinos or slot machine parlors, instead of local bars and restaurants, movies, theaters, etc.   If nothing else, this recession has taught us that there are real limits to consumer spending; discretionary spending is not a limitless resource.   With approximately 6.5 million residents and $4.7 billion in Lottery revenues, per-capita spending on the Mass. Lottery already exceeds $700.    Some of us might see this as reason for concern.  State Treasurer Tim Cahill sees this as an opportunity: “We here in New England have always been slightly embarrassed by our per capita spending on gaming.  I propose that we stop apologizing and take advantage of it.   I can’t explain the reasons – maybe it has to do with our long, cold winters; our lack of other entertainment options; or that we are simply a region of big dreamers and risk-takers.   But the simple fact is that people here in Massachusetts like to gamble…” {remarks to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, May 2007}.   

Forgetting the ethics of trying to squeeze more money out of households that are already contributing over $1,700 to Lottery revenues every year (2.4 people per household x $723 per person), isn’t it a bit unreasonable to think that slot machine gambling and casinos won’t cannibalize the Lottery revenue base?

Gambling proponents act as though Mass casinos, racinos, and slot machine parlors will be the only game in town.  They ignore the very real threat of competition from gambling establishments that will be opened in New Hampshire (Seabrook, Rockingham Park) right on the Mass. border if we license casinos here.   

State revenues from gambling will depend upon the rate of taxation on casino revenues.  When casinos from one state are competing with casinos in neighboring states, the need to offer bigger payoffs and better odds will be pitted against the tax rate.  The State legislature will hear complaints that Mass. casinos can’t be competitive with New Hampshire casinos or Connecticut casinos unless we lower our tax rate.  Haven’t we been through this before with other businesses … not to mention the arm twisting we’ve witnessed when sports teams pit cities against one another?

Proponents certainly don’t mention the “increased costs for taxpayers, insurers, health providers, and the Commonwealth due to acute medical care, mental health services, substance abuse services, unemployment insurance, child protective services, domestic abuse services, public safety, and correctional system costs” that result from behaviors associated with compulsive gambling. [Mass. Public Health Association, 2006 letter opposing licensing slot machines] ,

Is the short term gain of construction jobs and one-time licensing revenues worth the cost of going down this path?  That’s what the Legislature will be debating sometime in 2010.  Sen. Jehlen is giving us an opportunity to hear and participate in that debate now.  If you can attend, I’m betting it will be time well spent.

(for more information about what’s wrong with expanded gambling, check out www.USS-Mass.org, the website of “United to Stop Slots”)

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2 Responses to “Why the Debate About Expanding Legalized Gambling is a Big Deal”

  1. Columbine says:

    At the very least, it creates a very effective non-traceability smokescreen between the increased tax revenue and the number of dependents the state ends up carrying because the primary earner in the family blew their paycheck on the slots. We can just blame the gamblers’ bankruptcy on their weakness of character, and chalk up their spouses’ and kids’ homelessness to Prevailing Economic Conditions. Kind of clever, really. Shifts a lot of the humanitarian burden onto the fed while keeping the tax take here. Brilliant!

    Since I must, this being the internet: YES, I’m joking, in a really disgusted way.

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  2. Janine D. says:

    Next thing you know the state will start banning alcohol or prescription drugs since people have the possibility of becoming addicted to that. Since when has the state become “big brother?” I am for the casinos in the state. Look at the license plates at the casinos in CT and RI – all MA plates. Also, look at the plates around the holidays at the Rockingham Mall – mostly MA plates. Keep the money in the state.

    And, please don’t complain when the next round of state funds to the cities and towns is dramatically lower and state programs are cut.

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