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Q&A: Anti-gambling activist accuses state governments of exploiting their poor

Published: Friday, Feb. 28 2014 3:45 p.m. MST

This Jan. 4, 2012 file photo shows gamblers at the slot machines at the Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack, in the Queens borough of New York. Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, is critical of all state-sponsored gambling. He wants to stop the government from, as he says, "using casinos or state lotteries to cheat and exploit citizens."

Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

In 1976, New Jersey joined Nevada as only the second state to legalize casino gambling. Back then, 12 states had lotteries. Today, only two states — Hawaii and Utah — do not have some form of legalized gambling. Now the cutting edge is online casino gaming, embraced as a painless revenue source by ailing state governments. Nevada and New Jersey are again leading the charge, joined by Delaware.

Les Bernal is the executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, a grassroots organization critical of all state-sponsored gambling. This interview has been lightly edited for space constraints and for clarity.

Deseret News: What is predatory gambling as opposed to regular gambling?

Les Bernal: Predatory gambling is when government uses casinos or state lotteries to cheat and exploit citizens, to prey on human weakness for profit as an extension of a government program. And it produces an enormous amount of unfairness and inequality in America today.

DN: Why should we care that the state is heavily involved in gambling?

LB: We should care because this is an extension of government. Instead of encouraging people to save money, instead of trying to expand the middle class, today government is cheating and exploiting citizens, using extreme forms of gambling. We started with scratch tickets, then many states moved on to slot machines, now onto Internet gambling. They are going to try to open up a casino or lottery retailer in every home, every bedroom, every dorm and every office in a state.

DN: Thirty years ago political leaders on both left and right strongly opposed legalized gambling. Gov. Mario Cuomo in New York was as strong opponent. Now his son is on the opposite side. Political leaders on both the left and the right have switched sides. What happened?

LB: What you're seeing now is that there are Democrats and Republicans on the other side who will lobby for this because they're looking for gimmicks, quick fixes, right? These are people who don't want to tell the people that they're either going to have to pay more taxes or cut services.

DN: Gambling defenders say that people spend a lot of money wasting their time going up and down a hill, and then they go home and they say that was fun. How is casino play so different from ski tourism?

LB: At least to my knowledge, there is no Skiers Anonymous in America today, right? Skiing would be an example of a healthy high. You don't feel depressed after you go skiing. … Go to Las Vegas right now. If you watch the people playing slot machines, no one is beaming. No one is having fun. The local ski resort is not going to put a lien on my house. The gambling industry would love to say that they are the same as other entertainment industries, but they are far different. The guy that owns the ski resort? He goes skiing. Casinos are the only product or service in America where the people who own them and promote them don't use them.

DN: You call gambling a regressive tax. What do you mean by that?

LB: It means revenue is coming disproportionately from low-income people. … This is a government program that takes away opportunity. The best way to move up is to build assets. But here we have working-class people dropping $400 or $500 a month on lottery tickets. A poll from the Consumer Federation of America showed that if you make less than $25,000 a year, then 40 percent of those people think that the most practical way to build wealth is to play the lottery. …

DN: Let's talk about the social fabric issue, the fact that the government is pushing this magical thinking on people who are apparently quite vulnerable to it. What kind of implications does that have?

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