Some toy companies apparently think they have found a new market: five-year-old high rollers. "Try Me!" beckons the white-and-blue plastic machine with three rows of cartoonish kittens, dogs, and pigs grinning from the package.
Push a fake penny into the slot, and upbeat music begins as lights flash on and off. Push three buttons, and the blinking lights slow down, then stop on two dogs and a pig. Music denoting a sorry loss whines from the machine.
Put in another coin and the process repeats itself, but this time the flashing lights stop on three kittens in a row - Bingo! Eight yellow plastic coins spill out of the toy. It's called Penny Slot, recommended for ages 5 and up.
"I couldn't believe it," says Kathy Gilroy of the Northern Illinois Anti-Gambling Task Force who discovered the Penny Slot earlier this month at Toys 'R' Us. "It's set up with batteries so you could play it right there."
The marketing of gambling toys to children has raised the ire of antigambling forces and inspired indignation in Washington. It also prompts the question of what responsibilities toy manufacturers and retail outlets have to the larger community.
"It is just a terrible thing," says Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, the Senate's leading antigambling activist. "It would be like marketing toy fifths of whiskey."
Real pennies do not work in the toy, according to a Monitor test, because they are too big. Real dimes, however, did initiate the flashing-lights and sound sequence and were paid out as "jackpot" winnings.
Remove the toys, group urges
Ms. Gilroy and her group are urging Toys 'R' Us, Wal-Mart, and Walgreens stores to remove Penny Slot and other such toys from their shelves. They are also asking them to stop selling hand-held electronic poker and blackjack games, contending they also teach and encourage children to gamble.
"This kind of toy illustrates how deep we've sunk," says Bernard Horn, political director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, the grass-roots groups' umbrella organization in Washington. "It's incredible that anyone would think there's nothing wrong with selling a gambling device to children as a toy."
A Toys 'R' Us official says the company will have several employees examine Penny Slot, which is manufactured in China by Hong Kong-based Zima Products.
"If it does, in truth, represent something that would teach children to gamble, we will certainly remove it from the shelf," says Carol Fuller, a Toys 'R' Us spokeswoman.
Walgreens, which sells operational, miniature replicas of slot machines as banks with names like The Riverboat and Buckaroo, says it has already stopped ordering them because they didn't sell well.
"Those two [banks] were only carried in areas near where there were riverboat casinos," says Michael Polzin, a Walgreens spokesman, "just because we thought there would be more interest in those areas."
Mr. Polzin says the banks were meant for adults and could not explain why Ms. Gilroy found them "next to Pocahontas and Power Rangers" in the toy section.
On May 24, Gilroy also met with Edward King, Walgreens director of trade and corporate relations. She says he told her that Walgreens will take "under consideration" the group's request to pull the remaining gambling games off the shelves.
A Wal-Mart spokesman insisted such gambling and slot-machine-type toys were perfectly legitimate.
"These slot machines and the slot-machine-type motion have been used for years to help develop eye-hand coordination," says Brandon Parker, a public-relations assistant for Wal-Mart.
Mr. Parker also says parents have a responsibility to use their "discretion" when deciding whether to buy such toys.
Such comments about parental responsibility make noted child psychologist David Walsh "want to jump out of my chair." Dr. Walsh, author of "Selling Out America's Children" (Fairview Press, 1995), says of course parents have a responsibility to use discretion - but so do companies that make and sell toys.
"To say that it's the parent's responsibility, to use that statement as a license to send any message and promote any product to kids, implicitly denies we have any collective responsibility," Walsh says. "I think we increasingly need to see the welfare of our children as both a parental and a collective responsibility."
Rehearsing for adulthood
Walsh says that when children play with toys, they are practicing patterns that are "rehearsals" for adult life. He believes children who play with gambling toys would "certainly" have much more of a tendency to gamble as adults than children who did not play with them.
Wal-Mart spokesman Parker said the company does believe it has a responsibility to the larger community, but he declined to outline the company's philosophy or give any of the criteria used to determine what kinds of toys it believes are appropriate.
A spokesmen for Radica USA Ltd. of Carrollton, Texas, which makes the Riverboat and Buckaroo slot banks, did not return phone calls.
The Monitor was also unable to reach a representative of Hong Kong-based Zima Products, which produces the Penny Slot.