Is it worth the gamble?


In a 6-3 ruling last week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law banning gambling on sports, and made the choice to permit it a matter to be determined by each state. Given the power of the gaming lobby, the apparent human proclivity for gambling and the nearly irresistible pool of taxable wealth that legal gambling produces, it’s hard to imagine that states will not be welcoming of sports betting.

In its simplest sense, the debate regarding sports betting focuses on the conflict between “sin” and social ills on one hand and the marketplace and individual autonomy on the other. The arguments pro and con are similar to the ones surrounding alcohol and cigarettes, which are legal; marijuana, which is legal or restricted in just a few places; and hard drugs and prostitution, which are overwhelmingly illegal: Do you legalize and regulate, or criminalize to stop the spread of the behavior?

Sports betting originally was effectively banned in 1992, with four states being the exceptions. The largest sports betting state, Nevada, reportedly had a record $4.8 billion placed as sports bets in 2017. That hasn’t stopped gambling elsewhere, of course. Indeed, experts suggest that illegal betting in the United States is a $150 billion business.

So what will be the impact of “legalization?” According to Richard Schwartz, president of Rush Street Interactive, which operates SugarHouse Online Casino, a gambling site for New Jersey residents, “This is a multibillion-dollar industry that has been operating in darkness and can now be brought into the light with legalization and regulation.” While that may be true, it begs the question of whether the high social cost of gambling — debt and addiction — will be brought into the light as well.

Gambling disorder is believed to affect 2.2 percent of U.S. adults. But according to reports, among the 40 states that spend on gambling addiction help, the national average is 37 cents per capita.

A 2016 article in The Atlantic argued that the gaming industry’s electronic machines encourage addiction. They “are designed explicitly to lull them into a trancelike state that the industry refers to as ‘continuous gaming productivity.’” Smart phones, already addictive, could further accelerate this trend through sports gambling apps.

States are our nation’s public policy laboratories. So, it may not be such a bad idea to allow them to determine the parameters of legalized sports betting. Nonetheless, the question of whether to expand legal sports gaming should be carefully considered. If the answer is yes, state proceeds from the activities should be directed to efforts to improve the lives of those most vulnerable in the state — for example, to support the state’s education budget. Indeed, teacher strikes around the country have highlighted just how much states have shortchanged their children’s education.

But, in addition to that, states must do more to mitigate the cost to individuals and society of gambling addiction. Odds are, 37 cents isn’t nearly enough.

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