New York voters may have to decide this November whether or not to allow an expansion of legalized gambling. Should the constitutional ballot measure proposed by Gov. Cuomo pass, it could result in the siting of casinos in the Capital Region, Southern Tier and Catskills, and later in the New York City area. Proponents argue that it would bring us money and jobs, and make our state a destination for gambling-related tourism.
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
We should be skeptical about the expansion of legalized gambling in New York state. I like a good betting game, but hesitancy here goes beyond puritanical notions of vice and virtue, or portrayals of establishments that one might find in a Scorsese movie.
There are very real, measurable impacts that gambling has on society at large. And, as always, there are issues of personal freedom at stake. How we decide to facilitate that freedom through our laws is the question.
For the majority, gambling is at most an occasional pleasure. For many, it has no impact on life whatsoever. But for an unfortunate few, it can be a very powerful addiction that goes far beyond a recreational activity.
Naturally, this is the case with a number of pleasures and pursuits that we consider to be harmful if abused, but OK in the appropriate, legal circumstance (e.g. alcohol, pornography). So while we accept, for instance, the harmful effect that alcohol abuse has on society, why is there a ban on gambling? Is there a just rationale for accepting one and not the other?
The primary reason, when we speak of legalized gambling, is that we’re usually speaking about it taking the form of large-scale business enterprises. We aren’t talking about being able to go out and buy a deck of cards and gamble with your friends, or shoot some pool for money at the local bar.
We’re talking about creating a high-octane gambling environment away from home — indeed, away from reality — and one that’s ideal for maximizing profits, at the expense of a select few who keep coming back.
This creates a dynamic that’s very similar to the relationship between dealers of addictive substances and their patrons. Economist Earl Grinols has found that while “problem gamblers” make up just 4 percent of the population, casinos generally rely on such patrons for 30 percent to 50 percent of their intake. And therein lies the key difference between a casino and a bar, restaurant or liquor distributor — casinos literally depend on problem gamblers to finance their operations, just as those gamblers depend on casinos to get their fix.
How do they do this? Generally it’s through slot machines, video lottery and the like. Grinols found that approximately 80 percent of casino revenues are from these machines. (In one South Carolina county, when the slot machines were removed, the number of gambling addiction hotline calls dropped from 200 a month to none.)
While there is a place for the vast majority of us to go out and gamble without having any problem at all, the industry around this often-problematic behavior only serves to fuel and further it. Furthermore, while stereotypes might paint a glamorous picture of casinos where high rollers play for high stakes, that is not necessarily the reality. Often, the gamblers with the least to bet have the most to lose. And when they lose all, we foot the bill.
Among the other costs of gambling are those that are to be expected — crime costs, bankruptcy costs, social service costs — but we also lose out from worker productivity, health costs attributable to gambling addiction, dollars abused by the gambler, and political power abused by the insiders. In 2010, these costs totaled up to over $13,000 per pathological gambler. Include problem gamblers in that mix and we paid about $242 per adult.
Would these costs be present regardless of the law, inasmuch as the war on drugs has been a colossal failure in regulating personal behavior? Yes — often, forcing things like this into the shadows is more detrimental than being open about it. And there’s a certain extent to which these ills are unavoidable.
But there’s a difference between bringing it out of the shadows and putting it on a pedestal and creating meccas for it throughout the state. The attractive and addictive atmosphere of a big-time casino can’t be so easily replicated underground — and if it is, it’s not nearly as accessible for regular folks as it would otherwise be.
It would be better to treat the gambling culture like the alcohol culture — keep it small-scale, keep it small-time. Legalize the act of gambling, but find a way to strictly regulate it when it comes to the business. We need to avoid creating the sort of predatory industry that can fuel the addiction and hurt the addicts (and their community) time and time again — while doing our best to respect personal freedom.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.