Dr. James C. Dobson

It is said the only sure bet in a casino is to own one. It may be time to question that assumption.

For the last decade, casino kingpins and other gambling pushers have hoodwinked community after community, pawning their product off as harmless entertainment, painless taxation and economic development. Politicians, community service groups and business leaders alike have lapped up the casinos’ pie-in-the-sky promises with breathtaking naivet?, all the while ignoring the astronomical human costs associated with this enterprise.

Further fueling their rapid growth was a 1999 Supreme Court ruling permitting broadcast advertising, enabling casinos to saturate the airwaves with their alluring come-ons. The deception is shocking. In a current television ad for a Colorado casino, a man is handed a fistful of dollars, which prompts him to say to the camera, “The more I play, the more cash I get back. … So every time I’m a winner.”

Finally, someone may be calling the gamblers’ bluff. Trial lawyers are beginning to lick their collective chops at this ripe and rich target.

At this moment, all eyes are on Canada. Recently, a judge approved for trial a class-action suit filed on behalf of tens of thousands of Quebec citizens harmed by that province’s highly addictive video lottery terminals. The $60-billion-a-year gambling racket in this country is watching nervously, with good reason.

Every activity has its casualties. Baseball fans get injured by foul balls. Boaters drown. But the purveyors of such recreational pursuits wince at these occasional tragic realities. Gambling operators relish them. A destroyed life in their sphere nets a jackpot of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars in profits.

And gambling-induced casualties have reached staggering proportions. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission, on which I served, reported that more than 15 million Americans struggle with a compulsion to gamble. These individuals are the casinos’ bread and butter – something the industry knows all too well but is loath to acknowledge.

Do the math: For every addict the casinos can create and then bilk out of his life savings, they need to attract hundreds or thousands of “recreational gamblers” losing only a modest amount. That’s why they do everything in their power to cultivate, rather than discourage, reckless betting habits.

However, in light of the impending threat of litigation, casinos are scrambling to bolster their image as responsible corporate citizens. They publicly express concern about problem gambling with all the feigned sympathy they can muster.

One major chain has launched a TV ad campaign where a somber-looking executive encourages the viewer to gamble “responsibly.” The campaign has nothing to do with helping those devastated by gambling, and everything to do with positive PR and the bottom line. Instant polling revealed that the casino’s “favorability” rating spiked after airing the ads. Expect to see more.

The casino-funded National Center for Responsible Gaming is another pre-emptive strike in this looming battle. The Center has commissioned an array of dubious research aimed not at discerning which casino practices induce and exacerbate compulsive gambling, but rather finding a biological “cause,” thus absolving them of responsibility.

If casinos really want to curtail compulsive gambling, here are a few suggestions for starters: Stop placing ATM machines right next to slot machines. Stop giving away rivers of free alcohol. Stop badgering gambling addicts at home trying to entice them back. Stop dangling incentives for gamblers to bet ever-increasing sums. Stop targeting the elderly. Stop laying the groundwork for the next generation of addicts with “family-friendly” attractions and simulated casino games.

The odds of any of these being adopted are minuscule, precisely because addicts are the casinos’ lifeblood. The human pain and misery meted out by the gambling interests – divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, bankruptcy, crime and suicide – is merely the cost of doing business.

If gambling does indeed turn out to be the next big target for the trial lawyers, I will shed no tears. Gambling operators, however, just may want to save a few of their crocodile tears for themselves.

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James C. Dobson, Ph.D., is president of Focus on the Family. He served on the National Gambling Impact Study Commission from 1997-1999.

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