THE BLOG

Legalized Internet Gambling in Washington, DC? What a Con.

04/15/2011 03:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2011

The District of Columbia has decided to move forward with a plan to legalize internet gambling within its borders. Knowing just how broke the city is, the layman might think this plan is sound -- if not ingenious. But to those of us who know a thing or two about state sponsored gambling, this is going to be hell for DC residents.

On the surface, who can blame the District of Columbia? Like so many cities across the nation, Washington, DC is gasping for air, desperate to find cash in order to pay its bills and, ostensibly, help its citizens. The district's lawmakers are not trying to harm their citizens on purpose. They are guilty of ignorance, not malice.

The last thing the District of Columbia needs to do is get even further into is the gambling business. Like some forty other states, the DC lottery is already a huge player in state sponsored gambling. Along with sales of booze and cigarettes, the city makes a tidy sum selling these "sin" products. However, the sale of alcohol and tobacco have strict regulations against state sponsored advertising -- not so with the lottery.

Whereever you live, how many times a day do you see or hear a lottery commercial? The answer is too high to count. Lottery advertisements are ubiquitous. We see them so much we've become immune to them. Imagine for a moment if the same advertising methods were allowed for tobacco and alcohol. State sponsored ads for cigarettes, Jim Beam or Jack Daniels? There would be an angry mob in front of the mayor's house by sunset. It's verboten -- and rightfully so.

Why then, do we allow Washington, DC -- and all the other lottery states -- to push their casino games to their very own residents via hardcore marketing campaigns? Because the states (and DC) have convinced their constituents that lottery revenue goes toward education and other essential programs. It's a half-truth that's allowed the proliferation of lotteries to grow in a way never imagined nor intended as modern lotteries re-emerged in the late 1960's. Yes, lottery money does go toward education but often in lieu of budgeted money (PDF) -- not in addition to the formerly budgeted education dollars. That right there is the dirty little secret of the state lotteries.

For hundreds (yes hundreds) of years, lotteries were a simple thing: based upon picking a set of numbers and hoping that they matched that day's, or week's drawing. Was it harmful? It depends on your definition. But there was a limit to the harm one could do to themselves, as it was only so interesting to buy a ticket and wait a few hours or days to see if you won.

That old-school, "quaint" lottery has been replaced by far more addictive, casino-like games. In many states (and soon the nation's capital), you can go sit in a bar, have a drink... or five, and play video poker -- state lottery sponsored video poker where you need only to wait a second or two to see if you've won. Moreover, you can keep playing and playing -- without supervision or regulation just as if you were in a real casino. Those type of casino games are the most addictive. Don't think for a second that the lotteries aren't well aware that fact.

So, let's call it what it is. The lotteries have become state sponsored casinos. Add to it the fact that they market and advertise these games all over the various forms of media, and you've got yourself a sticky situation.

I like casinos -- sometimes a bit too much. But, I know the deal when I'm there. They want every dollar I have. I want the "free" room and the escape that a few days in Vegas or Atlantic City allows. Casinos are cutthroat businesses. But at least they don't pretend to be anything other than what they are.

The states (and the District of Columbia) should be ashamed of themselves for advertising addictive casino games to its own residents. Because these games are offered by their own governments, residents have the false notion that there is some good that can or may come from playing. After all, your own state or the nation's capital, couldn't possibly be out to take all your cash...right?

Wrong.

Each year, lotteries spend hundreds of millions of marketing dollars trying to get non-players to play and current players to play more -- a lot more. Most highly educated people know better than to throw money at the lotteries. Sadly, who plays well beyond their means? The least educated, the most impoverished, the ones who can afford it the least. Those are the ones that the lotteries bleed dry. There's no doubt that they'll also be the target of this new idea to allow legalized online gaming.

Laughably, the DC Lottery is slated to "manage" the new online gambling system in Washington, DC. Is there any doubt that they will use all of their marketing expertise to maximize profits out of this new revenue area?

Shame on the city for allowing this to happen. Shame on us for letting them.