Gambling: Is It Really That Bad?


The thrill of winning draws the compulsive gambler into betting more and more. But is it worth the cost?

“My name is Paul, and I am a compulsive gambler. It has been 40 days since my last bet. Forty days ago I didn’t realize I was a compulsive gambler. However, when I was confronted by my employer for embezzling, it finally hit me that I am and will always be a compulsive gambler. I am currently attending and will attend (for as long as I am allowed) Gamblers Anonymous meetings. I have lost a great career. . . . I am in the process of losing everything that I have worked for, with the exception of my wife and two children. My father hasn’t spoken to me since this all occurred, and my older sister will do anything to help my wife and children, but she wants nothing to do with me. I cannot blame her.

“If someone had told me 27 years ago when I made my first wager that when I was 39 years old, I would lose everything and be in a place where there are no freedoms, I would have told them that they were crazy because I am an intelligent person and I can control my gambling. The fact is that gambling took over my life and ruined it, and it ruined the lives of my family. It is an insidious addiction. You do things that no rational person would do. You don’t think of the consequences, and I am here to tell anyone who will listen that there are serious consequences for all of my horrible actions.”1

Paul is hardly alone. For more than ten million Americans, gambling is a serious problem. For three million, the compulsion is so powerful that health professionals label it pathological gambling, a condition as serious as substance abuse, depression, and antisocial behaviors. Problem gamblers are more likely to abuse alcohol, to be absent from work, and to commit fraud or embezzlement. There’s also a strong link between compulsive gambling and suicide.2

Unfortunately, defenders of legal gambling claim that it represents just another risk in the sense that “all of life is a gamble.” They argue that, just as the rest of life is filled with uncertainties (walking across the street, investing in the stock market, climbing on an airplane), playing the slot machines or betting on a sports team is another way of recognizing the randomness of things and hoping for the best.

Gambling is not a game

Although most major sports have gambling connections, gambling is not a game. It is serious business with millions of supporters and powerful lobbyists. The statistics are shocking. It is estimated that Americans spend as much as $550 billion a year in legalized gambling. On state-sanctioned lotteries, people spend about $88 million per day. In 2000, Internet gambling produced an estimated $2.2 billion in worldwide revenues, compared to the estimated $300 million gambled online in 1997. According to an article in the ABA Journal, online betting could reach $100 billion a year by 2006.3

Internet gambling’s potential is fueled by the ease of participation and the same anonymity that has made online pornography so popular. When an activity with strong addictive powers is made available on a system that allows almost universal access, an explosive growth is certain.

If one considers only the consequences suffered by problem gamblers and their families, that reason alone should make gambling a major social concern and raises questions about public responsibility. Should we oppose all forms of gambling? Or should we tolerate gambling with reasonable restrictions?

Gambling is not innocent

I personally oppose gambling for many reasons. It’s clearly not an innocent activity. Many people get hurt, and the lure of easy fortune affects the poor disproportionately. Unfortunately, as with alcohol and tobacco, the evidence of its harm is outweighed by the enormous profits it generates.

Moreover, gambling operates on the basis of deceit. It downplays the minuscule chance of winning. Casinos don’t have clocks or windows, thus hiding the passage of time, and many suspect that machines may be programmed for “near misses” to entice the user.

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