Gambling always expands; problem gamblers need help now

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By The Staff

Gambling activity will continue to increase in Kentucky. This predicable increase is not part of any proposal to expand forms of currently legal gambling in the commonwealth. It is due to the nature of business. Because gambling will continue its inexorable growth, it is time - now - for Kentucky to address existing problem gambling issues.

The business operation of gambling in America is reflective of the nation's capitalist economy. This is instructive, not surprising. For any business to succeed, anywhere, it must align with the society in which it competes.

Because American gambling (or gaming, if you prefer) operations must compete in a capitalist economy, it is imperative governments fully implement practical programs to address problem gambling behavior among its citizens. The principle of government protection of the public welfare applies here just as it does in the nation's laws regarding monopolies, regulations of insurance and programs for smoking cessation and DUI school.

This is not the case in many other nations. Canada is a nearby example. In Canada, the government owns all gambling and contracts with companies to manage the gambling venues or games. The government keeps a larger share of the profit than in the U.S., where gambling companies own the venues and games and are taxed on their profits. As the owner, the Canadian government (and the other governments around the world following this model) recognizes clearly its responsibility to protect the general welfare of its citizens.

Thus, the revenue from gambling is maximized through ownership and significant funds are spent from that revenue for social service programs. Well-funded and comprehensive awareness, prevention and treatment programs for problem gambling are a result, as is spending on programs to address the other social pathologies associated with gambling activity.

To compete in America, business continually must examine its products and procedures and present fresh approaches to sales and services. The gambling industry is no different. When horse racing began in Kentucky, there were simple win-place-show pari-mutuel bets. Then came the daily double, followed by all the exotic trifectas, superfectas and pick sixes. Now there is simulcasting and television wagering.

It only is a matter of time before the next gambling permutation hits the horse racing industry because it must continually adapt and progress to keep its product fresh and enticing to hold existing customers and get new ones. It's America's way of business, just like oxides were added to soap, cereal is packaged in new boxes, and every year cars look different and have more features.

Bingo once was on a card and alphabet-labeled rows of numbers were covered with corn or paper dots. Now bingo (called charitable gaming in Kentucky) sells sheets of nine bingo cards per page and players "daub" the numbers with huge, liquid crayons. Bingo also has electric or digital cards that dispense with the paper and dauber.

Some bingos outside Kentucky are linked by telecommunication to increase the jackpots across multiple sites.

Pull-tabs, which resemble small, cardboard slot machines, add further excitement and speed to the charitable gaming experience. A current proposal before the General Assembly (House Bill 52) would permit linked bingos and electronic pull-tabs.

The current Kentucky Lottery started as a simple game, as did most of the lotteries in the United States. Now, there are three-line games, five-line games, scratch cards, instant games and mega-state Power-balls and other enhancements to improve lotteries' ability to compete for America's expanding gambling market.

It is futile to propose a form of gambling be limited once it has begun. A legal business in America must continue to promote and improve its product if it is to survive. Government can, however, ensure the business is run in a socially responsible manner and ensure those among its citizens who are vulnerable have some reasonable manner of assistance.

These concepts are long-standing and well supported by government and the general citizenry as evidenced by Unemployment Insurance, Social Security, limited subsidies of health care and mental health programs, and OSHA, among others. Business has long since stopped arguing about the need for the basics outlined in these programs, rather concentrating its debate on the extent of government involvement and direction of spending. Indeed, much of American business looks to government for subsidies, particularly in research and development.

Problem gambling exists in Kentucky and the United States. Because of America's capitalist, free-market society, problem gambling behavior only will grow, regardless of whether new forms of legal gambling are allowed. It is necessary for government to ensure programs exist to address the human casualty of a potentially addictive behavior it legally sanctions. Government action is needed now to start awareness and prevention programs that can minimize harm and to implement treatment programs that may save lives.

The Kentucky General Assembly has an opportunity to meet this obligation. House Bill 137 would establish a Pathological Gamblers Awareness and Treatment Fund. Its purpose is to promote awareness among the general public, create prevention programs and provide outpatient counseling and treatment services. House Bill 137 prohibits payments directly to pathological gamblers. It is not a bailout and recognizes personal responsibility.

It does not increase taxes but obtains funding from revenues the state receives from existing legal gambling, about $200 million annually from almost $2 billion gambled each year on the Kentucky Lottery, at Kentucky's horse race tracks and at bingo halls.

House Bill 137 is a modest proposal appropriating $600,000 in each of the first two years to establish the program and $1.2 million in year three and beyond. Thirty-six states currently provide publicly funded problem and pathological gambling services, including six of Kentucky's seven border states: Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia. House Bill 137 is a long-awaited and much-needed response to address an existing problem that only will get bigger.

It is time Kentucky establishes a foundation for awareness, prevention and treatment for problem and pathological gambling before it burgeons into a more serious public-health crisis.

Mike Stone

Executive Director

Kentucky Council on Problem Gambling