3 heads

3 heads
The Last Great Prizefight: Jack Johnson, Tex Rickard, Jim Jeffries

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Crack Cocaine of Gambling

Last night on 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl assaulted former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell with that "I'm disappointed in you look," that indignant expression and disbelieving roll of the eyes that you normally get from a disappointed mother who thought she had done a better job raising her child. "Just because the other boys are doing it, doesn't make it right. Haven't I taught you anything!?" The ex-gov was trying to defend his decision to promote legal gambling in the state by explaining that if Pennsylvania didn't offer casino gambling, than it would lose that revenue to neighboring states. He failed to convince Stahl that he, or the state of Pennsylvania, really had no choice. Once the genie is out of the bottle, neighboring states are compelled to fight back, to compete for that revenue. Indiana and Pennsylvania have been huge winners; it was only a matter of time before Ohio got fed up watching its citizens flock across state lines to lose their social security checks when they could just as easily lose them at home. And New York City, the primary feeder market for Atlantic City, finally wised up and licensed their own monstrously large slot parlor at the Aqueduct race course in Queens. It's the domino theory. And in the Northeast, most of the dominoes have fallen.

The 60 Minutes segment was on the proliferation of gaming but mostly it was an exposé (hatchet job?) based on the alleged highly addictive design of penny slots, and their role as the primary weapon for state-sponsored, predatory gambling. "More people are addicted to slot machines than any other form of gambling," reported Stahl. Really? And more people play slot machines than any other game, too; i's not even close. Why? The same reason that people watch TV rather than read or go for a bike ride; it's easy and doesn't require any thought or effort. ( I wonder if the writers of the piece considered video poker to be slots, because video poker appears to be the most addictive game in the casino.)

Leslie chastised Howard Shaffer, a Harvard MD who defends gaming, for once having made the statement that "slot machines were the crack cocaine of gambling." Shaffer feebly defended himself by asserting that most people who try crack cocaine don't become addicted. But that surely is a phrase he wish he'd never uttered. It carries a heavy payload. Once you call anything the "crack cocaine of..." there's no taking that back. And it implies a lot more than mere addiction: like physical and financial ruin and exploitation of the poor and uneducated. Crack cocaine is very wrong, much more addictive, much more ruinous; much more wrong than plain old cocaine. Isn't it?

 Coincidentally, I ran across that same expression in the August issue of Harper's Magazine, in "The Luckiest Woman on Earth" by Nathaniel Rich, a story about Texas Lottery scratch cards, on which one "exceptionally lucky" person had won 4 times, a total over $20 million, at estimated odds of 18 septillion to one. Those are the kind of odds that quantum physics gives me of walking through a wall. But that's not the point. The point is the highly addictive and regressive nature of scratch cards. I'll give you one guess what scratch cards are: "the crack cocaine of...."

According to a study commissioned by the Lottery in 2006, the more education a person  has, the fewer dollars he or she spends on the lottery, and the demographic differences are even starker whan it comes to scratch-off games. " Scratch-off tickets are to the lottery what crack is to cocaine," said a Democratic state senator from El Paso when the $50 tickets were introduced.

Shame on scratch cards.

Gambling is no panacea; it brings with in lots of social problems. But, to single out one game as the "crack cocaine of..." seems biased. What if Pennsylvania banned penny slots and Texas banned scratch cards. Would some other game fill their places as "the crack cocaine of gambling." No doubt, because there will always be gambling addicts and whatever game they chose to be the source of their ruin will be the new "crack cocaine."

Dirk Hansen blogged about pathological gaming a few weeks ago. He referenced Howard Shaffer's article in in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, and gave a much more nuanced view than 60 Minutes. One of the most surprising points about addiction does not jibe at all with what Leslie Stahl was saying:
In the traditional view, pathological gambling was a matter of exposure to the proper stimuli—it could happen to anyone.  But as more and more gambling outlets and opportunities bloomed in Nevada, on reservations and riverboats, and in convenience stores, that view began to fall out of favor, because a funny thing happened. According to Shaffer and Martin, the prevalence of pathological gambling has remained stable over the past 35 years, even as opportunities to gamble have exploded. The lifetime prevalence rate of pathological gambling in the U.S. in the mid-1970s was 0.7%, say the authors, and by 2005, U.S. lifetime rates had actually fallen slightly, to 0.6% or less. Where was the concomitant explosion in the number of pathological gamblers? 
Seems counterintuitive. Maybe Shaffer is right, but what Leslie Stahl says seems more common sensisical. Plus, she has that voice of authority.

1 comment:

  1. Scratch cards can be used for good and also for bad works. It is depending on the person's habit.

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