By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

At casinos, compulsive gambling is the whole idea

The appalling decision by state leadership to build three casinos and a slot parlor in Massachusetts is a disaster-in-the-making on many levels. Studies have shown that proximity to casinos correlates with increases in crime, divorce, even the suicide rate.

And here’s another. Though compulsive gamblers may make up a small proportion of the population (between 1 percent and 5 percent, depending on which study you look at), casinos are utterly dependent on those folks coming in and blowing the grocery money. Michael Jonas of CommonWealth Magazine writes:

Just how much of the revenue casinos bring in is from the losses of those with gambling problems? One of the most thorough studies of this issue was done in 2004 in Ontario, where researchers had a sample of residents maintain diaries logging their gambling expenditures. The study, prepared for the government-supported Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, estimated that 35 percent of Ontario casino revenues were derived from moderate to severe problem gamblers. Such gamblers accounted for 30 percent of revenue from casino table games and a whopping 62 percent of revenue from slot machines.

Jonas also quotes Gov. Deval Patrick as saying, once again, that the legislation now hurtling through the Legislature will include money for treating compulsive gamblers. But there’s no logic to Patrick’s position. Within the casino industry, compulsive gambling is not a bug — it’s a feature, vital to its business model.

What’s taking place on Beacon Hill right now will live in infamy. Patrick’s legacy as governor will be his leading role in foisting this miserable enterprise upon the public.

Also: Harvey Silverglate writes in the Boston Phoenix about his angst over being a libertarian who opposes casinos and slots. As he notes, there’s nothing libertarian about what will take place in Massachusetts: this will be a government-run operation from the start.

If you really want to gamble, maybe we can start taking bets on which ex-legislator will be hired as the $150,000-a-year executive director of the Massachusetts Gambling — uh, Gaming Commission.

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  1. Sean Roche

    Newton Rep. Balser has been way out front on this.

  2. As the granddaughter of a compulsive gambler, I find this repugnant. However, I’ve reluctantly abandoned arguing on the ethics and morals of this; the proponents do have a point- gamblers are going somewhere whether we build something or not. And, frankly, most people don’t care about exploiting an addiction.

    However, I still oppose this. This is being sold not only as a way to keep gambling revenue in the state but also generate jobs. They will, but not the kind that will revive our economy or do anything remotely like promote a career.

  3. Michael Pahre

    Only $150,000 for the executive director?

    Just wait a year for the big performance bonus to kick in, then have the commission’s board renegotiate his contract. Within 2-3 years, we’ll get something bloated, more in line with the $300,000+ crazy salaries in the quasi-independent state agencies.

  4. Matt Kelly

    A friend of mine was recently hired by a software company in Cambridge called Opera Systems. He’s a software engineer, laid off six weeks prior to that. He had job inquiries coming to him at the rate of two or three per day, and actually had two solid offers in hand when he selected Opera. Since he was hired eight weeks ago, Opera has gone on to hire at least a half-dozen more people, and just this week announced that it has raised $84 million in venture capital so it can continue to expand.

    Or we can allow casinos in Massachusetts, literally to take money out of residents’ pockets, and to employ card dealers at $9 an hour.

    This is economic planning at its worst. This is large gambling interests buying out the Legislature, propping up the low-skilled unemployed class just enough so they can skim off the gamblers rather than do something economically productive. It’s shameful.

    And as to the argument that the gamblers will just go to Foxwoods or elsewhere– more power to them. I’ll give them a one-way ticket to Connecticut or Atlantic City or wherever, and they can stay there. Let them pull down some other state into economic mediocrity; we should be supporting a high-end economy so we can all make more money.

  5. Jeff Howe

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for this. I started a comment, but it wanted to be a blog post instead. Here’s the link:

  6. Aaron Read

    I think casinos should be in Massachusetts! In fact, I believe it so strongly, that I think casinos should be put in places to maximize their availability to all residents of the state. So they should be situated in Harvard Square, the center of Weston, downtown Concord, and in Vineyard Haven. Can’t put them anywhere else!! Any other location would mean less than ideal exposure!!!


  7. Peter Sullivan

    I basically don’t care whether Massachusetts has casinos or not. I enjoy a good card game and don’t mind it when I end up at a casino as infrequent as that happens. I am confused however at a few comments though. Matt is comparing his obviously highly educated software developer friend with a black jack dealer??? I am guessing two distinct types of applicants would apply for these two different jobs.

    And as for compulsive gamblers, I don’t think making a casino thirty minutes closer than Foxwoods is going to have a significant impact on that. Maybe scratch a few less Red Sox Lottery tickets on the way there…

    Gambling is available in Massachusetts already. On line, bookies, lottery, etc.. If you are a gambling addict, you are already doing it and the state is not reaping any money to put towards programs to help you.

    A few low to mid level jobs, some state Revenue and keeping your money in Massachusetts, why not…

  8. C.E. Stead

    DK – I read on BMG that they ALSO legalized on-line poker! For real money!

    So the economic model is shot to hell from Day One!

  9. C.E. Stead

    It passed as an amendment, so it’s in there as it goes to the Senate.

  10. Matt Kelly

    >>Matt is comparing his obviously highly educated software developer friend with a black jack dealer??? I am guessing two distinct types of applicants would apply for these two different jobs.

    Yes, precisely. And we should be encouraging more of the former, less of the latter. We’re doing the opposite.

  11. Mike Benedict

    @Aaron: You make a great point. If Mass. is going to have casinos, it should go all in. Don’t shuffle them off to the margins. You can’t swim with just one toe in the water. Put them in the middle of the population centers, where they can generate the most traffic.

    • Dan Kennedy

      We’re opening a casino on our back porch. In better times I would oppose it, but we need jobs.

  12. Jim Morrison

    I don’t gamble because I find that it is essentially a tax on people who don’t understand mathematics. However, there is nothing inherently wrong with gambling for amusement. People have always gambled and always will. The argument that some people will not gamble responsibly is compelling, but insufficient to outlaw casinos, especially when we already have so many State-sponsored lotteries and scratch cards.

    The Volstead Act was a gift to bootleggers. They made fortunes under it’s protection. When it was repealed and the production of alcohol was put under governmental control (and taxed mightily, I hasten to add), crime was reduced. True there are some people who don’t drink responsibly and that is a societal problem, but it’s still better than Prohibition.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Jim: Prohibition outlawed alcohol. The legislation we’re on the verge of passing in Massachusetts takes an activity that is already outlawed and legalizes it, despite zero evidence of any enthusiasm for it outside of casino operators and elected officials.

  13. Jim Morrison

    And I hold that legalizing casinos is likely to have an effect on gaming similar to the effect that repealing Prohibition had on alcohol. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. I guess we’ll see soon enough.

    No enthusiasm for it?

    What? Did the bottom fall out of the ‘Vice’ market? If we build them, they will come.

    It seems to me like it’s not going to impact the Commonwealth enormously either way. I like our little state better every time we move further from our Puritanical beginnings.

    Next stop? Beer and wine being made available in all supermarkets, if I ran things.

  14. While I have never seen the appeal of gambling (disclosure: I have bought MA lottery tickets), to each his own. Addictive? Sure. But I have also known people living on the financial edge due to their insistence on a family trip to Disney every year.

    The state solution is a compromise for a bad, and likely inevitable situation. When the closest casino is in Nevada, it is easier to remain aloof; when they are just over the line in CT or RI, it is an economic issue, as we will have the drawbacks when our citizens spend the money in those states, but come back home with their problems.

    My preference is for the state to handle location selection without regard to political influence (I can dream, can’t I?), or giving franchises to particular groups or industries.

  15. Mike Saunders

    @ Dan: You said: “The legislation we’re on the verge of passing in Massachusetts takes an activity that is already outlawed and legalizes it, despite zero evidence of any enthusiasm for it outside of casino operators and elected officials.”

    …and, of course, the five million Massachusetts residents who traveled to Connecticut last year to gamble.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: Romney had the best idea, and I’m not sure why he never followed up on it: Tell Connecticut to hand over some of its money in return for Massachusetts not building any casinos.

  16. Mike Saunders

    @Dan: Besides being pretty close to extortion, I think he probably figured out that he’d end up needing to strong-arm the three other adjacent states that were considering gambling.

    Dunno if you’ve seen the UMass Dartmouth report yet, but’s it’s pretty eye-opening:

  17. Mike Saunders

    @ Dan: You’ve mentioned the Center before. Even if you figure that his numbers are inflated by a factor of 20-25 percent, and if you completely discount his subjective findings, the fact that millions of people are leaving the state to spend money elsewhere becomes a compelling argument for the pro-gambling side.

    The problem with the “casinos benefit from compulsive gambling” argument is that it starts to veer toward the comparisons with Prohibition that anti-gaming forces have sought to avoid. Why haven’t we instituted a second Volstead Act after studies like this one in 2006?

    “The combined value of illegal underage
    drinking and adult pathological drinking to the industry was at least $48.3 billion, or 37.5% of consumer expenditures for alcohol, in 2001. Alternative estimates suggest that these costs may be closer to $62.9 billion, or
    48.8% of consumer expenditures for alcohol.”

    it can be argued that alcohol consumption is a far great societal ill than gambling. But why aren’t we banning it? Quick answer: Because bans don’t work.

    I don’t gamble — I went to Vegas three times on business trips and spent a total of $40 in slots; I might play MegaMillions twice a year when the jackpot gets obscene — but the gambling prohibitionistas are giving off the same holier-than-thou air that I imagine the pro-temperance forces once had.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: The ban works fine. We have no casino gambling or slot machines in Massachusetts. You offer nothing that wouldn’t apply equally to the bans on crystal meth and prostitution.

  18. Mike Saunders

    @Dan: If the argument is that we should ban gambling because of the undue burden on compulsive gamblers, then anti-gambling forces should logically fight for a ban on alcohol sales because of the undue burden on problem drinkers.

    But it’s likely most anti-gambling folks would revert to the fall-back position that gambling is farther up the vice scale. Next is the moral suasion tack that gambling has more in common with higher-order sins of prostitution and illegal drugs than it does with alcohol — despite the research that shows alcohol’s detrimental effect on health, crime, family structure, the workplace, etc..

    The “societal harm” argument tends to wither without the reinforcement from the neo-Puritans.

  19. Mike Rice

    I like Romney’s idea of extortion too.

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