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Backlash grows against 'convenience gambling'

Concern over social costs of gambling prompts a second look at videopoker.

Poker players like to say there's "a time to hold 'em and a time to fold 'em," and the same appears to be true with a growing political backlash against gambling.

Just a year ago, Alabama and South Carolina voted out governors because of their opposition to legalized gambling. Now, both states have seen a major change in public opinion and action against state-approved gambling. In nearby Tennessee, the push to jump aboard the lottery bandwagon failed this year. Thirty-three parishes in Louisiana have gotten rid of video poker.

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While church groups have been involved, it's not just a Bible Belt phenomenon. In South Dakota, Montana, and Oregon there are efforts to dump video poker as well. And in Washington next week, NCAA officials will meet with opponents of legal gambling to craft legislation that would end college sports betting in Nevada and New Jersey.

"If there is a trend, I would love to see it," says William Thompson, a political scientist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Dr. Thompson has studied gambling and is not opposed to resort casinos. But the rapid growth in what is called "convenience gambling" in the past decade - instant lotteries, video poker, and slot machines in corner grocery stores and other outlets frequented by children - is another matter.

"It would be very healthy for our nation to see a backlash aimed at convenience gambling, very healthy," says Thompson.

Why this new turn after years of gambling growth in the US? Part of it has to do with the social costs of gambling. In South Dakota, for example, a study shows that while video poker adds $92 million a year to government coffers, it actually costs $272 million in crime, bankruptcies, welfare, and treatment for gambling addiction.

Here in Oregon, a state with a relatively small population, there are an estimated 80,000 problem gamblers, and the number of Gamblers Anonymous chapters jumped from three to 30 within five years of the introduction of video poker (one of the most addictive forms of gambling).

A national problem

Nationwide, there are more than 5 million pathological or problem gamblers - half of them young people - and another 15 million are at risk of becoming problem gamblers, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

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But it usually takes at least three years after new forms of gambling are in place before the social and economic effects begin to appear - by which time state officials have become reliant on this "free" form of revenue.

"It's a silent epidemic, a shameful epidemic," says Greg Kafoury, a lawyer in Portland, Ore., who is leading the effort to get a ballot initiative outlawing video gambling on next year's ballot here.

The Rev. Tom Grey hopes that's changing. Mr. Grey, a Methodist minister who heads the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, spends his time on the road organizing grass-roots gambling opponents - including those who defeated a lottery measure in Alabama and those who helped pull the plug on video-poker machines in South Carolina.

In addition to the state-level efforts to curb gambling, proposed federal legislation would ban Internet gambling, raise the legal gambling age, require that the chances of winning be posted at gambling sites, eliminate the gambling loss tax deduction, and establish a 1 percent tax on gambling revenues to pay for addiction treatment.

But the political fight against gambling remains very much an uphill battle. The lure of gambling revenues - what Grey calls a "government addiction" - remains very strong for many state lawmakers and governors. Despite the social costs, most Americans say gambling is no big deal. And gambling interests have become very effective in pressuring state lawmakers and members of Congress.

The General Accounting Office recently reported that soft-money contributions by gambling interests to both parties has increased more than eightfold since 1992. So far, giving money to Republicans and Democrats alike seems to be a safe bet for casino owners and other gambling interests. In recent months, both Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri have courted gambling industry officials.

A window of opportunity

Still, Grey sees a "window of opportunity" in the fight against legalized gambling. After several years of work, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission recently recommended a moratorium on new casinos and lotteries, an increase in the minimum betting age to 21, more resources to address gambling addiction, a ban on collegiate sports betting, and stricter limits on the political influence of gambling interests.

Gambling opponents are encouraged by the growing support from across the political spectrum. Recently, consumer advocate Ralph Nader and James Dobson, head of the conservative group Focus on the Family, joined forces to criticize political party leaders who have solicited money from what is euphemistically called "the gaming industry."

In addition, says Grey, economic good times have meant state budget surpluses - another reason to lessen the dependence on gambling revenues. But the main thing, say gambling opponents, is to convince Americans that something that appears to be merely an innocuous form of entertainment carries heavy costs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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