That tinkling sound you hear comes from the misconceptions being shattered by a pioneering study released this week on the extent and seriousness of compulsive gambling in America.

Let's hope the study also shatters this nation's complacency about state lotteries and other forms of legalized gambling, which clearly is anything but harmless.In assessing the new study, keep in mind that the American Psychiatric Association recognizes compulsive gambling as a mental health disorder.

Keep in mind, too, that each year Americans waste more than $18 billion on legalized gambling. That's more money than Procter and Gamble makes in a year.

Anyway, the study shows that 4.2 million American adults, or almost four times as many as previously thought, are addicted to gambling. More than a third of them are women. Forty-three percent are non-white, 38 percent are under age 30, and 60 percent have annual incomes less than $25,000.

So much, then, for the stereotype of the problem gambler as a white, middle-class, middle-aged male with money to burn - or at least plenty of money before the addiction set in.

Yet how can the new findings come as a surprise when 46 states sanction some form of gambling and when more and more states are resorting to lotteries to raise revenue even though lotteries appeal most strongly to those least able to afford it - namely, the poor?

Because gambling is so widely sanctioned, many argue that the government has a moral obligation to develop treatment programs for problem gamblers. But it would make more sense to outlaw gambling - or never to legalize it in the first place.