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Is It Time For ‘Gambling Ed’ In Schools?

When three armed men tried to rob the “Internet sweepstakes café” in Apopka, Fla., a woman called the police to report what was happening “at the casino.”

The police knew what she meant. More to the point, the robbers knew that one of Florida’s 1,000 or so Internet sweepstakes cafés would be a tempting target. Together, the establishments are expected to gross about $1 billion this year, primarily from customers who come to play slot-machine-type games.

Despite restrictions on gambling, these so-called cafés have recently sprouted in malls and shopping centers in a number of states. Their owners argue that the games are simply a promotion for their main business of selling Internet time and phone cards, the way McDonald’s uses Monopoly pieces to sell more burgers and fries. Opponents call the cafés “convenience casinos.” They say the storefront parlors fuel problem gambling and are magnets for crime.

But in a get-rich-quick-without-working culture, why pick on this particular form of gambling? Many of those same opponents raise few objections to Florida’s nearly two dozen thoroughbred, harness and greyhound tracks, or its jai alai frontons, all of which offer high-stakes poker games and some of which have slot machines as well. And hardly anyone in the state voices concerns about one of its biggest gambling enterprises: the Florida Lottery, which brought in $3.9 billion last year. The logic appears to be that gambling is bad and addictive, unless the government gets a cut.

The battle against private gambling enterprises is waged online as well. In April the federal government closed off U.S. access to the three largest online poker sites — PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker — alleging that the sites, all based abroad, illegally circumvented laws preventing U.S. banks from processing gambling-related transactions. Eleven executives and bank officials were indicted and player accounts were frozen indefinitely. Meanwhile, a company called eLottery, Inc. has actively courted state lotteries, peddling software that would allow states to start selling tickets online.

We ought to decide whether gambling is an intrinsically dangerous activity from which individuals need to be protected, or just one more form of entertainment from which private businesses and state governments can freely profit.

Even if we do decide gambling is essentially dangerous, it does not follow that it should remain illegal in so many circumstances. The best strategy would be to focus on education, rather than prohibition, adding gambling ed. to school curricula, alongside sex ed. and drug and alcohol awareness programs. After all, cigarette smoking and unprotected promiscuous sex are known to be dangerous, but last I checked, neither is illegal (though some smokers in New York City, which recently banned smoking in public parks, might disagree). Instead, we deal with these problems through education and, in the case of cigarettes, limitations on advertisements that target young people.

If we accept that gambling is so fundamentally harmful that access should be largely or entirely shut off, we would at least have to stop promoting state-run games, if not shut them down altogether. It might be acceptable for governments to tolerate dangerous behavior on the part of private individuals, out of respect for their freedom of choice or simply out of the inability to effectively stop them, but it is unconscionable for cash-hungry governments to actively lure people into an activity that is bad for them.

Is gambling inherently, unavoidably dangerous and without social benefit, akin to a Schedule I drug like heroin? Let’s look at the science.

The current Diagnotic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM IV, classifies pathological gambling as an impulse control disorder. This puts it in the same category are kleptomania, or compulsive stealing; pyromania, compulsive fire-starting; trichotillomania, the compulsive pulling of hair; and intermittent explosive disorder, loosely described as hot-headedness. Popular parlance has introduced a number of other unofficial impulse control diagnoses, from the shopaholic to the chocoholic. But, while some people cannot resist the desire to engage in these behaviors, most can, just as some people are capable of drinking alcohol for decades without becoming addicted while others are not.

This distinction doesn’t diminish the harm experienced by pathological gamblers and their families, but it does mean that the problem is not the temptation itself. The existence of kleptomania does not mean stores are inherently dangerous; the existence of pyromania is no reason to ban matches; and the fact that some people suffer from pathological gambling is not much of an argument against convenience casinos or online poker.

We could argue that even those who are not pathological gamblers end up wasting money gambling and that gambling establishments, therefore, are bad. It’s certainly true that people who go to casinos spend money, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they waste it. I happen not to get any pleasure from gambling, so for me, gambling in any form would be a waste of money. But for those who find gambling entertaining, spending money at the slots, or their virtual equivalents, is no more of a waste than is buying a novel or going to the movie theater. Most of this summer’s blockbusters will not change the lives of those who view them, but no one has suggested closing down the theaters — many of which are located in or near strip malls, like convenience casinos, and also rake in large sums of cash.

The difference, it seems, is that convenience casinos and online poker sites compete with states’ own numbers games, and theaters do not. If governments were in the movie biz, they might be railing against the dangers of privately made films instead. Though it’s hard to imagine what kinds of movies state governments might make: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Subsidy? Or maybe a nostalgic romance: Surplus in Seattle.

I am generally suspicious of laws that claim to protect adults from themselves. I am even more suspicious of laws that claim to protect people while actually protecting revenue.

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