Q&A: Anti-gambling activist accuses state governments of exploiting their poor
LB: [During WWII] Government challenged people to buy savings bonds. And what's the iconic image from that era? It's Rosie the Riveter with her biceps flexed, and the message is, "We can do it." Today in Oregon and Virginia, their branding symbol for the state lottery is two crossed fingers. We've gone from biceps flexing, saying we can do it, to two crossed fingers. And it's really two crossed fingers behind your back, which means it's a lie.
DN: Where do you think political leadership is on this issue?
LB: I think the political leadership reflects us as a society. We have been unwilling to sacrifice, and we want to have it both ways as a people. A lot of the responsibility falls on our political leaders, because their job is to lead us. But we as a people have not been willing to say that we are willing to cut services or pay more in taxes. We've been letting people tell us that we can have it both ways. So we get a little bit what we deserve.
But we are seeing a national debate on lack of opportunity, on the political left and the political right. And anyone serious about creating opportunity, it runs through this issue. You can't improve social mobility in America, until you get government out of the gambling business.
DN: What percentage of revenue is from problem gamblers?
LB: Most casinos today are regional casinos, which means they attract people within a 20- to 30-mile radius. A report by the Institute for American values last fall had 11 independent studies that showed that 40 to 60 percent of casino revenue comes from problem gamblers. They don't have a business without problem gamblers.
DN: What is your organization doing to reverse this trend toward expanded government-sponsored gambling?
LB: The two biggest things are, one, we are moving forward with an intense litigation project against government-sponsored gambling. There is no other business in the country that has business practices like this. There are 10 million citizens in this country whose lives have been ruined by this government program. But right now if you are a gambling addict in this country, you are in the shadows of society. It's your fault. It's not the fact that we gave you free alcohol. It's not the fact that we gave you free play to get you hooked. It's not the fact that we let you stay in the casino for 72 straight hours, where you clearly were addicted and we did nothing to stop it.
DN: So you're doing a class action lawsuit?
LB: That's where this is heading. Ultimately we want to see a jury trial in America, and bring these facts out into the open. Right now, government is a partner to this. State governments are a partner to this business. So you will not see reform from state legislatures, because they are so wedded to the revenue. Everyone just kind of shields himself. The key is to use the justice system, which has been effective in other social issues to bring light to this. And then you'll see reform.
DN: So you are talking about discovery process? You want to find a tobacco papers for gambling?
LB: Yes. And they're out there. But what helped drive the tobacco process was state attorneys general. But on this issue the state attorneys general are on the team, all looking the other way. If you are a lottery vendor, you don't have to comply with standard advertising practices. I can say, "Buy my $20 scratch ticket and win money for life." Imagine a local insurance guy saying, "Buy my insurance and you'll be wealthy." No one else could advertise that way.
So litigation is a big piece of it. Another key piece of it is getting people who are victims of this, parents whose children have suffered from gambling addiction, citizens themselves who have been gambling addicts — it's getting their voices to come forward, and to say, "Why is my family expendable? Why is my life expendable?"