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