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Gambling issue is bigger than politics

A reader called not long ago to challenge my credentials as a liberal because of my opposition to casino gambling, which I think is uglier than dirt.

The man said that if he enjoys gambling, that should be his business and no one else's.

As to one premise, he was a bit off the mark. Liberalism isn't the same thing as libertarianism.

As to the other, he had a point. If he wants to wager with someone else, that should, under many circumstances, be their right. It wasn't sensible social policy but old-time religion that had the law busting up neighborhood poker games until the Legislature put a stop to it.

But the line needs to be drawn, it seems to me, at making a business of it. It's no longer just a matter of "consenting adults." Gambling is highly addictive to many people, and the gambling industry exploits them with a practiced, perfected ruthlessness.

It's no coincidence that the typical casino is a windowless room with no clocks on the wall.

Nor is it any accident that electronic slot machines, the industry's newest device, have earned themselves the description "crack cocaine of gambling."

South Carolina, where electronic slots preyed under the euphemism of "video poker," got rid of them after a plague of horribles that included a mother leaving an infant to die in a closed car while she fed the slots.

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission, though widely seen as predisposed in favor of the industry, quoted the Harvard Medical School's 1997 estimate of 7.5 million adult problem and pathological gamblers. For perspective, that's roughly equal to half of Florida's population.

The commission reached no firm conclusion of its own on the extent of these problems but agreed that it is severe, echoing the National Research Council's warning that "with the increased availability of gambling and new gambling technologies, pathological gambling has the potential to become even more widespread." By one estimate, 15 percent of U.S. gambling revenues come from problem and pathological gamblers. Another puts it at 30.4 percent.

So there you have one powerful argument against commercial gambling. The proven potential to corrupt government is another. Edwin Edwards is living proof of that.

The states already have their own dirty hands when it comes to how some of them run their lotteries. In Florida, Jeb Bush has gotten off much too lightly for things he would have deplored before he became an anti-tax governor. To hype jackpots, the lottery nearly doubled the odds against winning a Lotto grand prize and went from one to two drawings a week. It inflated the advertised prize by stretching annual payouts from 20 years to 30. It started a new wrinkle on Fantasy 5, at higher odds.

Bush's new lottery secretary, David Griffin, came into office saying he would do a better job of publicizing the odds and improving its warnings to problem gamblers, as recommended by the national commission. But it remains nothing short of sinful that lottery tickets are sold by some of the payday lenders the Legislature should have put out of business along with their alter egos in the title loan racket.

This conflicts with the spirit, though not the letter, of the commission's urging that credit card cash advance machines be banned from places where gambling occurs. People who need to go to loan sharks to buy the groceries have as much right as anyone else to gamble their money away, but the state should not be making it so quick and easy.

"In an anti-tax era," complained the gambling commission, "many state governments have become dependent on "painless' lottery revenues, and pressures are always there to increase them. The evolution of state lotteries is a classic case of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no general overview."

Former State Sen. Rick Dantzler, who ran for governor in 1998 and wants to run again, is the only Florida politician who's had the courage to address this.

"Just like cigarette advertising was banned from television because it promoted an unhealthy practice, I would even eliminate lottery advertising because it promotes the wrong ethic," says Dantzler. "You don't get the things you want by either winning the lottery or stealing _ you work for them. That should be the message."

A state that can't keep its own lottery clean would be putty in the hands of promoters promising "painless" casino revenues. Even libertarians should want to be wary of that.