Casino gambling is extending its reach into the American population and is causing a large range of problems, as well as contributing to economic inequality.
This is the argument of a report published Tuesday by the Council of Casinos titled “Why Casinos Matter: Thirty-One Evidence-Based Propositions from the Health and Social Sciences.” The council is an independent group of scholars convened by the New York based Institute for American Values.
Until 1990 the only legal casinos in the United States were in Nevada and Atlantic City. In the last couple of decades, however, casinos have popped up all over the country, in a total of 23 states.
There has also been a transformation in the audience casinos attract, the report explained. The older Vegas-style resort casinos depended a lot on high rollers who engaged in table games. By contrast today’s regional casinos are oriented to middle rollers and low rollers who play slot machines, and who tend to return frequently to play.
In 1991 there were 184,000 slot machines in the United States. By 2010 there were 947,000. By 2013, 62% to 80% of casino revenue came from slot machines.
Modern slot machines, the report continued, “are programmed for fast, continuous, and repeat betting.”
They are also hooked up to a central computer that collects information on player’s preferences and can program each machine to a player’s style of play.
“Slot machines are designed to get players to gamble longer and lose more over time,” the report commented.
People who play slot machines as their primary form of gambling are more likely to become problem gamblers. The report cited an Australian study that showed almost half of those using slot machines exhibit symptoms of problem gambling.
Excessive or problem gambling has a severe impact on families, the report went on to explain. Apart from the financial problems, spouses are at a higher risk of domestic violence and problem gamblers have a higher rate of divorce or separation.
Children are also affected, often being neglected by their parents and having their chances of holidays or going to college lost.
There are short-term economic benefits for a community when a casino opens, the report admitted. Yet, the long-term social costs are significant, although harder to quantify.
A case in point is Atlantic City. When casinos were first allowed around four decades ago it was touted as a way to renew the economic condition of the region. Currently, however, despite repeated government bailouts, Atlantic City “remains an economically troubled place,” the report stated.
Moreover, encouraging frequent visits to casinos results in more money being taken out of a community and often hurts other local businesses.
For example, in Atlantic City in 1977 there were 242 local eating and drinking establishments, but by 1996 there were only 142.
Proponents of casinos, the report noted, often allege that they provide entertainment for many Americans who enjoy occasional gambling. The authors pointed out, however, that casinos rely heavily on income from problem gamblers.
“Evidence from scholarly studies on the relationship between casino income and problem gambling consistently and robustly points to the conclusion that casinos disproportionately rely on problem and pathological gamblers for their revenue base,” the report stated.
The report cited a variety of estimates from numerous sources. The percentage of gambling revenue from problem gamblers ranged from about one-third to up to a half of total revenues.
The estimates came from 11 published studies, not only in America, but also from Canada and Australia.
One Canadian study found that casual players comprised 75% of players, but they contributed only 4% of net gambling revenue.
Tax revenue vs. common good
Another recent statement on gambling came from the archbishop of Toronto, Canada, Cardinal Thomas Collins. In his April “Pastoral Letter on Gambling, Gaming and Casinos,” he explained that in his ministry he has become sadly aware of the problems created for individuals and families because of problem gambling.
Governments are tempted by the prospect of increased tax revenues, he noted. But the negative social impact of increased gambling far outweighs the benefit of more money for the government, he argued.
Occasional gambling can be a legitimate form of entertainment, Cardinal Collins explained. However, he added, “Individuals, and the government, and charitable organizations as well can become enslaved by the lure of easy gambling revenue, and that is clearly not healthy.”
“Gambling is inherently based on illusion – on promoting the fantasy, particularly attractive to the most vulnerable and the most desperate, that it is an easy way to provide a quick solution to the financial problems that they face,” he observed.
“That is a cruel illusion, and it is not wholesome for governments to promote it, especially through extensive advertising,” he concluded. A useful reminder that the role of governments extends beyond balancing the budget, and that the common good of the community should be the highest priority.