In the early 1990s, Professor William Eadington, the world’s leading academic expert on gambling at the time, was often asked to testify at legislative hearings on casinos and commercial gambling. In those years, Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Louisiana were all considering legislation authorizing some form of casino gaming. Professor Eadington was adamant about one thing, gaming needed to be difficult to access, remote from population centers. He thought it was best located in the desert in Nevada, floating on the Mississippi River or high up in the Rockies. Eadington’s reasoning was simple; the closer gambling was to population centers, the larger the number of people who would be at risk to gambling related problems. Research at the time indicated that about six percent of the population was susceptible to developing addictive behavior related to gaming. Eadington did not oppose casinos; in fact he was a strong supporter of the industry. But he did believe it was the responsibility of lawmakers to limit public access to gambling. He believed that it was good policy to locate casinos in remote mining towns or on riverboats and that it was poor public policy to situate casinos in Detroit, New Orleans or Chicago.
The professor’s argument carried the day. However, the period of time when casinos were limited to those hard-to-get-to locations was short lived. Each time another state legislature debated expanding gaming, it did so in search of tax revenues. Those remote locations do not produce the same amount of tax revenue as casinos in major metropolitan areas. Tax revenues from casinos in mountain towns are minuscule compared to cities and therefore the trend has been toward less restricted locations.
Since 1990, gambling in some form has spread to nearly every corner of the country.
Although the United States has not reached the point of saturation of the British Isles, we are closer than one might think and we are getting closer every year. Sports betting is the latest form of gambling to expand. In May the U. S. Supreme Court struck down a 1992 federal law that banned commercial sports betting. In the wake of that decision, six states have authorized gambling on sports and more are certain to follow. Currently, it is possible to place a wager on sports two ways, you can go to a casino or in some states sit down at your computer.
Online gambling is also expanding, but it has received less attention than sports betting. However, in time online gambling will produce much more revenue than sports betting and create greater risk of an English-like backlash. New Jersey and Pennsylvania have authorized online gaming for both sports and casino gaming
Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia presently only allow sports betting via the internet. The lottery in seven states can be played online, but additional states are currently considering authorizing online lottery sales. Some states have confined their online-lottery thinking to sports betting, but others are considering video lottery terminals (VLTs) that could be played online. The real risk of a backlash similar to England lies with online Slot machines. VLTs are slot machines and making them available through the internet puts them closer to the general population than even the FOBTs on the high street. Slot machines may not be the cocaine of gambling as the British press has claimed, but they certainly are more addictive than table games or sports betting.
Their addictive power lies in the speed or frequency of the outcomes. A modern slot machine will give a player dozens of outcomes a minute. By way of contrast, lotteries have drawings once or twice a week. NFL football games are held only three times a week; even baseball and basketball with daily games only have outcomes once a day. Gamblers on a roulette wheel, craps table or black jack table are lucky to get fifty decisions an hour. It is much more difficult to become totally consumed in the act of gambling when it is necessary to wait for the results and the opportunity to make a new wager. Slot machines have no wait time; as fast as the player can make the wager, the game will deliver a result and be ready to accept a new bet.
The kind of threat that slot machines online present is getting closer with every legislative session. When people can play slot machines at home, the narrative in England and the United States begin to intersect. The pressure will result from the same two factors that caused the uproar and increased regulation in England. Many more people will become addicted to gambling because many more will be exposed to it. The spread of sports betting will also have a major social impact. Sports are already central in American culture, watched and discussed constantly. When gambling is attached to sports, it will be added to national dialogue, making conversations on gambling as common as talking about the scores. Talking about gambling on sports will expose even more at risk people to gambling and thereby increase addictions.
Whether the gaming industry can stop or control the expansion is a matter of debate. But it could begin to consider seriously the social risks accompanying the dramatic growth of gaming in all its forms. It could work to create mechanisms to protect at-risk people, before a crisis in public confidence occurs. Using the English model, it can be assumed that a political backlash against all forms of legalized gambling will occur eventually. The English government and gaming commission reacted to a media campaign. Increased controls and restrictions on FOBTs and gaming television advertising were a direct result of the media pressure. The gaming industry in England will survive, but it may be on a much smaller scale.
A similar backlash could happen here, it would take much longer because there so many separate jurisdictions that would need to take action. England is one jurisdiction and therefore changes are uniform and can happen very quickly. National anti-gambling legislation is not impossible in the United States, but federal intervention is without precedent, Bobby Kennedy not excepted.
It happened once before in the United States. In the 19
century a backlash against corrupt lotteries led to laws outlawing lotteries and most other forms of gaming in the majority of the states. It took a hundred years for legal commercial gambling to work its way back from the anti-gambling movement of the 19
century. This risk is not worth taking. A united effort by all of the stakeholders in gaming could develop some strategies and mechanisms for protecting at-risk gamblers and that would go a long way to stave off a disaster. I think of it as a
to protect the gaming industry and the most vulnerable of the industry’s customers. Bookmakers and gaming operators in England are currently working to develop such strategies, but they are fighting a minor defensive fight, after the major battle of the war has already been lost. The crisis has not yet arrived, but I believe this is the time to act before there is an overexposure to gambling here.
But that is just my opinion, isn’t it?