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Gambling spreads like a cancer

There are big, lavish Indian gambling halls. Casinos ply the Mississippi River. Casino-type gambling is popping up in little western towns. Lotteries have spread to 33 states and the District of Columbia. What's not legal in gambling today may be tomorrow. Americans already wager huge sums. If one is to believe the trade journal Gaming & Wagering Business, last year we spent $290-billion on every gambling allure from blackjack to dog races. That is 6.55 percent of Americans' personal income _ three-fifths of the amount we spend on medical care, and almost the equal of our total 50-state outlays for education. Legal and illegal wagering together soared 92 percent from 1982 to 1989.

State governments can take a big share of the credit: They have widened and hyped lotteries so vigorously that sales have been going up 25 percent per year. Politically, it's less painful to sell lottery tickets than raise states taxes.

We may be on a fast track to even more state-condoned or state-sponsored gambling. Legitimization has been spreading like a cancer.

"In 20 or 30 years," declares William Eadington of the University of Nevada's Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, "it's not inconceivable that casino-style gaming will be available to virtually every community and every citizen in the United States."

Eadington predicts "progress is almost inevitable" in his new book, Indian Gaming & The Law _ a look at how on- and off-reservation gambling is adding to the U.S. gaming fever.

From Seminole bingo in Florida in the 1970s, the so-called Indian bingo market has grown to some $500-million a year, with 131 bingo or gambling operations run by tribes across the country.

A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision said once a state legalized any form of gambling, Native Americans had the right to offer the same game _ but without state regulation. Congress followed up with a 1988 law confirming Indian rights to run bingo and card games and obliging states to negotiate with tribes interested in casino games.

Michigan already has seven Indian-run casinos. Milwaukee is about to get an Indian bingo hall run by the Potawatomi tribe _ 240 miles from the tribe's reservation. Off-reservation gambling may have an expansive future: Tribes in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona and California are all exploring the possibility.

But the newest rage on the gambling front is the riverboat. Illinois and Iowa are now racing to see which will be the first to launch a floating gambling casino on the Mississippi River.

Riverboat gambling was approved by the Mississippi Legislature this summer, providing local residents vote for it. Two prime dock sites for boats are Natchez and Vicksburg.

Pennsylvania is talking about gambling on the Delaware, Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. There's discussion in West Virginia of matching that with riverboat gaming on the Ohio between Wheeling and Weirton. Perennially strapped New Orleans is considering casinos both on- and off-shore.

The grand lure in all this, beyond potential tax revenues, is economic development. The tawdry example of Atlantic City, where casino gambling has compounded law-enforcement problems and provided nothing for impoverished local residents, seems to escape all the boosters.

Here and there, constituencies are still rejecting casino gambling proposals. But the hope that the gambling craze can be curbed anytime soon has to be seen as one of the longest shots of the '90s.

Washington Post Writers Group