Slots under scrutiny


IF MARYLAND officials decide to bring back slot machines to the state, a body of scientific literature suggests we can expect an overall economic benefit with only modest increases in social problems.

As chair of a research panel on gambling at the National Academy of Sciences, I've carefully reviewed most of the hundreds of studies on the costs and benefits of gambling and the relationship between gambling availability and the occurrence of pathological gambling.

While the research on economic impact is limited and frequently reflects the bias of its sponsor, this much is clear: Adding slot machines would produce new revenue for the state. The size of the increase would depend on the way the system is set up and run.

Even if new gambling opportunities were to compete with existing revenue streams, such as the lottery and restaurant and alcohol sales, there would still be a net benefit to the state. Even when the social costs of new gambling are considered - for example, crime, bankruptcies and the costs associated with pathological gamblers - the net economic effect is still positive.

Some form of gambling is legal in all but two states, Utah and Hawaii. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of American adults participate in state-sponsored gambling in their lifetime. If you account for illegal gambling, the real figure undoubtedly is even higher. The vast majority of these gamblers do so for enjoyment, with few, if any, negative consequences.

But for some, gambling can destroy lives, injuring family and friends. Pathological gamblers have higher rates of divorce, bankruptcy, job loss, psychiatric disorders, suicide and crime. An estimated 1.5 percent of adults - especially young adults - have been pathological gamblers at some time in their lives. But we are only just beginning to understand why.

Very limited research suggests the introduction of gambling in a state will increase the number of pathological gamblers. Would the addition of slot machines at Maryland racetracks create new gambling problems? Most likely it would not.

Marylanders now can legally bet on the lottery and horse racing. They can also go to the Internet or out-of-state casinos. Still, if we add slots, Maryland should be prepared to expand pathological gambling prevention and treatment programs, especially for those who work in this industry.

Studies also have documented the broader community-wide impact of gambling, including increases in crime and corruption. But all of these studies focused on areas where casino gambling was being introduced on a broad scale. Here too, there is no credible data or theory that would lead me to believe that the more limited step of adding slots at racetracks would negatively affect the communities where these tracks are located.

Since 1964, when New Hampshire introduced its lottery, gambling advocates have won a national debate over whether a state should profit from legal gambling. Today, the question is whether the state will profit, and how best to set up and run the enterprise.

Before the Maryland lottery, slots were legal in four counties in the state - until the late 1960s. They could be found in many locations, even grocery stores. Controlling a far-flung system like that proved very difficult. Collecting revenues was tough, and the system encouraged cheating and corruption. For that reason, many fought to get rid of slots.

So far, advocates for reintroduction are heading in the opposite direction, concentrating the slots in four locations. Done this way and with sufficient oversight, there is little reason to fear the kind of corruption that is part of our past.

If there is to be a new era of slot machines in Maryland, the details will be vital. But current research and experience strongly suggests slots can be introduced in our state in a way that will increase net revenues, minimize the growth in the number of pathological gamblers and minimize the crime, corruption and other negative consequences for the communities where they are made available.

Charles F. Wellford, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, College Park, chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee on the social and economic impacts of pathological gambling.

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