Gambling is exploding in popularity and, for many, has progressed from a pastime to something much worse.
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Like an infectious disease, it spreads throughout the nations of the world. It infects virtually every household, young and old, rich and poor, ignorant and educated. From high-stakes casinos and government-run lotteries to penny ante bingo matches, raffles and office pools, gambling is everywhere—and is becoming more common with each passing year.
The practice of gambling can be described as “staking something of value on the outcome of an event that involves chance, in hopes of gaining the objects of value that have been staked on the event by others.” In other words, risk motivated by riches.
The history of this practice stretches back nearly to the beginning of human history. And, in the modern age, as technology expands and the character of individuals and nations declines, gambling is quickly becoming a virtual epidemic.
Modern gambling exists in many forms, which vary in popularity among different cultures and groups. These include: (1) betting on sports or games of skill, including horse and dog races, football, baseball, basketball, hockey, prizefights and others; (2) card games, including poker and blackjack, which may be played at casinos or in private homes; (3) dice games such as craps; (4) lotteries and “scratch-off” games (typically sanctioned by state or federal governments, with tickets sold at outlets such as convenience stores); (5) bingo; (6) mechanized betting such as electronic slot machines (known as “one armed bandits”) and video poker; and (7) other casino games such as roulette, big six, and keno.
A method of organized public betting often used at horse or dog tracks is the “pari-mutuel” system, which translates to “mutual stake” in French. This system pools bettors’ money and distributes winnings in proportion to the amount wagered. The intent of this method is to facilitate gambling tax collection and safeguard against theft (“Gambling,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2005).
The growth of gambling in wealthy, “developed” countries has exceeded overall population growth, as ever larger percentages of individuals in these nations yield to the temptation of this habit. Many of these nations are so prosperous that even those “below the poverty line” enjoy a standard of living that is higher than the majority in the “developing” world. Yet, these peoples still seek easy avenues to increase their “net worth.” Gambling, both in its legal forms and otherwise, has long been one of the most popular methods of pursuing this goal. Recent statistics gathered in these countries bring the expanding scope of the problem into focus.
According to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission Report, legalized casino gambling in America grew 10 percent in 1975. Compare this to 29 percent growth in 1998. Meanwhile, playing the lottery increased from 24 percent to 52 percent.
The commission estimates that 125 million U.S. adults gamble, and 7.5 million of these are either problem or compulsive gamblers. Between 1993 and 2003, total gambling revenue in the U.S. more than doubled, from $34 billion to $72 billion!
Gambling in some form is legal in all states except Hawaii and Utah. 38 of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, conduct lotteries. Also, many of these states participate in combined multi-state lotteries such as Powerball.
Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the capital of the American gaming industry, Las Vegas, Nevada, was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country between 1990 and 2000, with an 83.3 percent population increase. It is still the most rapidly growing major U.S. city, both in terms of population and in the amount of new construction. According to The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the number of visitors to the city has increased from 6.7 million in 1970 to 35.5 million in 2003. During this same period, gross gaming revenue for greater Las Vegas grew steadily from $3.6 million to $7.8 billion, and overall visitor dollar contribution jumped from $1.1 billion to $32.8 billion! The city is now the top tourist destination in the country, as well as the most popular convention site.
Since 1992, net revenue from government-run lotteries, video lottery terminals and casinos has mushroomed from $2.7 billion (CAD) to $11.3 billion. In 1999 alone, government-run gambling generated $8.6 billion—$5 billion of which was profit. Sixty-four percent of households with incomes under $20,000 spent an average of $333 on gambling that year. And 76 percent of all Canadian households took part in at least one gambling activity, spending an average of $499. In 2001, the average household spent $257 on government lotteries alone.
According to the Canada Safety Council (a private charitable organization), up to 360 suicides per year are related to gambling, and other problems—such as domestic violence, breakup of families, and bankruptcy—are also linked to the habit (www.csmonitor.com).
Britain takes a tolerant position regarding gambling. Betting offices have been licensed by the government since the early 1960s, and gambling devices such as slot machines are legal, as are games of chance in homes or private clubs (“Gambling,” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2005).
According to the National Centre’s British Gambling Survey, 72 percent of Britain’s population—about 33 million adults—took part in some form of gambling activity within the one-year period ending in July 2004, and about two-thirds (65 percent) had bought a National Lottery ticket. However, the lottery is only the third most popular form of gambling in Britain, surpassed by horse racing and slot machines. Britain also supplies the highest percentage of foreign visitors to Las Vegas.
Despite Britain’s passion for waging bets, the survey reveals that three out of four British gamblers rarely ever win! The reason that most give for gambling is “fun and pleasure.”
BBC News reports that, from 2001 to 2002, Australians wasted more than $15 billion (AUD) on gambling—an average loss of $1,017 per adult! This should not be surprising, since more than 20 percent of the world’s poker machines are in Australia.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 330,000 Australians (2.3 percent of adults) have “significant gambling problems, with 140,000 experiencing severe problems.” On average, such gambling problems can last nine years. Each of these 330,000 problem gamblers has lost an average of $12,000 per year! Once again, as a result, the pressures of this mounting debt have led one in ten to contemplate suicide.
Yet, even though an astounding eight out of ten Australians gamble, two other Western nations—Sweden and New Zealand—have surpassed this. There, nine in ten adults gamble!
The arrival of Internet gaming is a major factor in the recent explosion of gambling’s overall popularity. The availability of gambling “at the click of a mouse,” at any hour of day or night, equals increased convenience. Gone are the days when one needed to travel to a casino, or recruit players for a card game at home, to indulge an appetite for gambling.
Although difficult to accurately measure, it has been estimated that between 1997 and 1998, Internet gambling more than doubled—from 6.9 million online gamblers to 14.5 million. The generated revenue increased even more—from $300 million to $651 million. For 2004, this figure increased to $6.6 billion, and industry experts project total revenue of $20.8 billion in 2005 (www.winneronline.com)! The online poker industry alone grew threefold in 2004 (www.rgtonline.com).
Although online betting is illegal for American companies to offer, a U.S.-based company may still establish an overseas operation to dodge the law. Most online casinos are based in the Caribbean. In 2003, the United States accounted for an estimated 60 percent of all Internet gambling worldwide, despite the fact that wagering with U.S.-issued credit cards or checks is also illegal (www.foxnews.com). The World Trade Organization, in a recent case brought against the United States by the Caribbean nation Antigua and Barbuda, ruled that American laws against cross border gambling are in violation of free trade standards (www.bbc.co.uk).
In a related development, the British Parliament is expected to approve Internet gambling soon, including specific provisions to allow gaming companies to accept bets from parties outside the U.K. This is viewed by some as purely a push for new tax revenue, and some observers expect America to follow in Britain’s footsteps soon.
Even in the relatively recent past, the practice of gambling carried a sense of dishonor and was considered a vice. This is no longer the case. Social organizations—even religious groups—commonly sponsor bingo games, riverboat gambling trips, and other events that involve games of chance. Bingo and gambling “outings” are now common even at nursing homes and at group homes for the mentally disabled.
As with many social trends, this shift in public opinion may be to some degree influenced by media outlets such as television and motion pictures. Several cable television shows currently exist that are based on “Texas Hold ’Em,” a newly popular version of the card game poker. The ground-breaking program “World Poker Tour” first appeared on the Travel Channel in 2003, and has since become the highest rated program in the network’s history, drawing 5 million viewers per show.
Competing cable channels followed suit with their own variations on the theme, including Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” ESPN’s “World Series of Poker” and Fox Sports Network’s “Championship Poker at The Plaza.” The success of these shows encouraged the development of poker tours and tournaments co-sponsored by companies such as Harrah’s Entertainment, a casino gambling powerhouse, and networks such as ESPN.
Other current television programs featuring gambling themes include NBC’s “Las Vegas” and CBS’ “Dr. Vegas”, as well as “reality” shows such as “The Casino” on FOX and the Discovery Channel’s “American Casino.” A new cable channel devoted entirely to gambling is now reported to be in the works (www.afa.net).
Prior to the television phenomenon, a remake of the 1960 film “Ocean’s Eleven” appeared in theaters in 2001, boasting a number of top-flight actors in its cast. This highly successful movie, along with its 2004 sequel, follows a group of gamblers and professional con artists as they plan elaborate thefts in Las Vegas and Europe. The storylines of these films deliberately glamorize the gambling habit while blurring the roles of hero and villain—the audience is manipulated to cheer for the main characters as they commit robbery.
The increased interest in gambling, in particular “Texas Hold ’Em,” has trickled down to the average American household. Home poker parties are on the rise, and the retail industry has responded enthusiastically to the demands of this lucrative market. Mainstream retail chains—including children’s toy stores—now carry equipment such as poker chips and portable game kits, as well as scores of books devoted to the subject.
The image of Las Vegas underwent what has been called an “identity crisis” during the 1990s. The city spent much of the decade pursuing a “family-friendly” approach to the planning of resort properties, building amusement parks and other attractions appealing to those with children. This was partly due to competition from the many Indian tribe-operated casinos springing up across the rest of the country. One apparent result of this approach is the flood of permanent residents discussed above, which led to a 1994 Time magazine cover story proclaiming it the “New All-American City.” However, in recent years, the city’s marketing strategy has shifted back to a focus on vice, excess, and the appeal of the forbidden—with a determination to push the envelope on each of these elements. This is seen in Vegas’ new marketing tagline, “What Happens Here...Stays Here,” which is featured in suggestive television commercials promoting an “edgier” Vegas experience. According to the CEO of the agency responsible for these ads, “We need to set Las Vegas apart. When people are in Las Vegas, they are less inhibited” (www.usatoday.com).
Likewise, the city’s tourist attractions are changing with the times. For example, Treasure Island, built in the mid-1990s as a Disney-style family resort, has changed its name to “TI.” It now hosts a racy theater piece titled “Sirens of TI,” as well as a burlesque bar. Also, a business promoted as “the world’s largest strip club” opened in Vegas in December 2004, one of several recent additions to the city’s adult entertainment industry.
Many nations of the western world struggle with worsening debt. In America, more than 40 of the 50 states reported budget deficits in both fiscal years of 2003 and 2004. The shortfall totaled many billions of dollars in more populous states such as California.
This problem has prompted state officials to view revenue generated by casino taxes, lotteries, and other forms of legal gambling as a source of much-needed cash. In 2004 alone, ten states passed or enacted laws that maintained or increased gambling availability. Many other ballot proposals are in the works (www.ncsl.org).
While some citizens oppose this approach on moral grounds, tolerance for funding government with gambling is increasing. This is especially true when it is presented as an alternative to increased taxes on the individual. Property taxes, used in many states to fund public education, are often reduced or stabilized using this alternate source of money. In many states, gambling now helps finance schools from elementary level through secondary education.
State governments have a longstanding love/hate relationship with gambling. Lottery profits were used in building Jamestown, Virginia, the first American colony, in the early 1600s. This type of funding has since been used to finance the United States colonial army, colleges (including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton), courthouses, hospitals, libraries and many other public endeavors—including churches.
This lenient environment in early America led to the creation of many private lotteries by the 19th century. However, corruption became widespread in these games. Often, the “winner” would receive a lesser prize than advertised—or no prize at all! This sparked an eventual nationwide ban on state involvement in gambling, which lasted from approximately 1878 to 1964.
The dry spell ended in March 1964 with the introduction of a “sweepstakes” in the state of New Hampshire. This libertarian state’s avoidance of the term “lottery,” among other clever tactics, enabled lawmakers to evade Federal anti-lottery laws. Other states followed New Hampshire’s example, and a trend of gambling expansion was underway.
America’s northern neighbor, Canada, has historically paralleled the U.S. in its gambling legislation. In 1817, a law to ban all games of chance failed to pass in Lower Canada (modern Quebec) due to intense popular opposition. However, in 1856, the Act Concerning Lotteries did pass, which banned this particular form of gaming. Interestingly, this law most directly affected the young nation’s Catholic clergy, who had been using lottery profits for nearly a century. Legal gambling returned to Canada in 1969, as the country’s Criminal Code was amended to allow provincial lotteries, casinos, and lottery licenses for charitable and religious organizations (North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries).
Does the Bible address the subject of gambling? Since gambling proceeds are commonly used by churches, may we assume that this practice is biblical? What about scriptural accounts of casting lots?
Were you aware that a well-known Bible hero gambled?
What accounts for gambling’s broad appeal? Why is participation in this activity growing so quickly?
In Part Two of this series, we will answer these questions and look at the root cause of gambling’s popularity in modern society.