ON the eve of the $100 million Pennsylvania lottery, an elderly woman walked into a Philadelphia drugstore and announced that she had ``cleaned out'' her $700 savings account. The woman, who lives on a fixed income, used every dollar to buy lottery tickets. That's the kind of ``lottery madness'' that swept over Americans last week in the richest drawing in the nation's history.
Michael Lodise, an authority on gambling problems, says the elderly woman was typical of thousands of Pennsylvanians who went gaga over gambling last week. They drained savings accounts, cashed in paychecks, and even borrowed to buy tickets at the rate of 600 a second.
Experts say state-sponsored lotteries like Pennsylvania's are sowing the seeds of serious gambling problems all across America. People who never gambled before are suddenly hooked. The lotteries have made wagering socially acceptable.
H. Roy Kaplan, a Tampa University professor who has written extensively on lottery winners, says the multimillion-dollar prizes now being offered ``bring people out of the woodwork.'' He explains:
``The more lotteries that exist, the more people get into gambling. It opens up new territory. A great many lottery winners had never gambled on anything else.''
Mr. Lodise says the explosive growth of gambling cuts across ``every race, color, creed, income, religion, and ethnic group. The government, with all these lotteries, is dangling the carrot in front of people, telling them they have a chance to get rich and famous without working for it.
``In Pennsylvania, I've seen people come out of welfare offices and spend their money for lottery tickets. They think it is their only shot at a better life,'' says Lodise, who is vice-president of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Henry Lesieur, another analyst of gambling trends, says there is an urgent need for action to reduce the dangers of gambling.
Dr. Lesieur, a sociologist at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., notes that even young people are being sucked into gambling. His 1987 study of New Jersey high school students found that 86 percent of them had gambled in the past year.
And it could get worse. Gambling promoters foresee the day when television technology will make it possible to gamble on lotteries, sports, and just about anything else from your living room. Promoters would particularly like to tap the massive, $21 billion-a-year, underground racket in sports betting by making it legal - and a new source of business and government revenue.
Lesieur suggests several reforms that would help slow the rush toward excessive gambling:
Cut back on state advertising for lotteries.
Eliminate credit for gambling, including credit cards at casinos.
Increase the distance from casinos to bank-teller machines.
Eliminate check-cashing near race tracks.
The ``lotto-mania'' that has swept the United States this year, including the $69.9 million jackpot in Illinois three weeks ago, has raised caution flags across the country.
The prizes are so big that some critics are calling them obscene. While the lotteries are a boon to state budgets (about 40 percent of the revenues go into state treasuries), experts are wondering what the ultimate price will be to the nation.
Research shows that about 4 percent of those who gamble are compulsive - totally unable to control their impulses. Another 23 percent are at risk, and often spend their families' rent and food money on tickets for the lotteries, race tracks, or sports.
Lesieur tells of a case he knows: a New York salesman in his 40s who lost his house, borrowed on his three siblings' credit cards to the limit, and went in debt to his parents to feed his gambling appetite. Last week, the man was missing - and his relatives speculated that he had taken his last few dollars to go to Pennsylvania to ``get it all back.''
``The costs of this gambling are going to rise'' for the country, Lesieur warns. ``Eventually, many of the people who get involved in gambling through the lotteries will wind up in prison, and we will all pay the costs of putting them there. Yet we see the states promoting all this, without factoring in these costs.''
Paul Dworin, publisher of Gaming and Wagering Business, estimates that Americans are now pouring $241 billion a year into betting. That's more money than all 50 states raise from taxes ($236 billion).
Mr. Dworin says research shows there seems to be a natural limit to how much people will spend on gambling. But with one exception - Massachusetts, where lottery sales have leveled off - the US hasn't hit that level yet, he says.