Gambling booming in South Florida, but consequences unclear

Like a gambler betting on a hunch, Florida voters and lawmakers have expanded legalized gambling throughout the state without much certainty about its effects on crime, bankruptcy, suicide and addiction.

Since 2005, state voters have approved Las Vegas-style slot machines in Broward and Miami-Dade dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons; Gov. Charlie Crist’s compact with the Seminole Tribe has expanded slots and brought blackjack and table games to Indian casinos; and the multistate Powerball lottery will debut in January.

As these and other legal gambling opportunities increase — and as televised poker and movies like 21 bring a new legitimacy to the lifestyle — more people believe that gambling is a viable avenue to financial independence.

Indeed, there is no Surgeon General’s warning for gambling, and it may be that gambling will never need one. But the research into gambling’s social and economic costs has only recently begun to approach the academic rigor applied to studies of tobacco and alcohol use, said William Eadington, an economics professor and director of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming.

People jump to conclusions about gambling „regardless of the amount of information they have,“ Eadington said. „You may decide early on that gambling is good or gambling is bad because in your gut you know it.“

„That has clouded the public debate. The evidence is very ambiguous, I hate to tell you, on all these issues.“

Opposing forces

A lack of peer-reviewed studies that can be evaluated on methodology, replicability and other factors has led to what Eadington calls „adversarial positioning“ between those who favor gambling and those who oppose it.

A 2004 study by Howard Shaffer, a researcher at the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders at Harvard University, developed the „syndrome model,“ which theorized that addictions to substances such as alcohol, and to behaviors, such as compulsive gambling, were the result of similar biological, psychological and environmental causes.

Shaffer’s studies also have shown that fewer than 2 percent of Americans are pathological gamblers.

Shaffer has been criticized by casino expansion opponents for accepting millions from the casino industry to fund his research. But even accepting Shaffer’s conclusions, Eadington said the difficult question becomes: Do we ignore gambling’s impact on the most vulnerable population?

That’s a question lawmakers must contend with, said Pat Folwer, executive director of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling.

Because research into gambling is still relatively young, she said, lawmakers should „tread slowly and lightly.“

A University of Florida study of pathological gamblers in 2001 concluded that “there were at least 500,000 in the state who were dealing with varying degrees of problem and pathological gambling,“ Fowler said.

Not everyone is convinced that such gambling studies are conclusive.

„No matter who does the studies, there are questions as to the accuracy,“ said Florida State Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, whose South Broward district includes two Seminole Indian casinos and three of the four Broward parimutuels that offer Las Vegas-style slot machines.

Frustrated with the available research on gambling in the mid-1990s, Geller helped form the Public Sector Gaming Study Commission, which researched, among other things, casino gambling’s impact on crime, bankruptcy, addiction and other social ills.

He said the study was led by Florida State University researchers and included input from elected officials, law enforcement, casino regulators and others. The study was funded in part by the state Legislature, but also by parimutuels, he said.

One question the study sought to address, Geller said, is whether casinos cause an increase in crime.

„The answer,“ he said, „is yes, but.“

Casinos attract more people, and that generally requires greater police presence. More people and more police in one area often results in more arrests, he said.

The group’s research also looked into the incidence of bankruptcy related to casino gambling. „There are rumors of bankruptcy,“ he said. „The problem is they’re just rumors.“

A source of revenue

For states such as Florida, which is facing severely diminished tax revenue, gambling is an enticing revenue source.

Eadington estimates that legal commercial gambling is a USD 90 billion-a-year industry.

Gambling has spread fast and wide across America, Asia, Europe and elsewhere, he said, because people no longer consider it a pernicious vice but a form of entertainment tinged with glamour and the possibility — however slim — of striking it rich.

„When gambling was largely prohibited, during the mid-20th century, there were very different attitudes,“ Eadington said. „Now you have casino-style gambling legal in about 35 states; state lotteries in 38 states; the media, especially TV and movies, romanticizing gambling considerably more than before. You have phenomena like the World Series of Poker.“

„All of these things are changing the popular culture interpretations of what gambling is. So we’re in a very different world than we’ve ever been before.“

For individuals with low savings, high debts and few recourses to traditional investment, gambling can be seen as a road to financial independence. According to a report by the Institute for American Values, 20 percent of Americans frequently play state lotteries, spending about USD 60 billion a year.

„If you are below a given income level or relatively disenfranchised,“ Eadington said, „you have no way to increase your assets by real-estate plays or stock market plays. But the lottery is there.“

What we’re buying

Though Americans are saving less, and spending considerably on lottery tickets, the two are not necessarily related.

„The phenomenon of low savings is societal,“ Eadington said. „The U.S. has been slipping in that area for 25 years. Now it’s effectively zero. But what are the causal factors? To blame it on just gambling is disingenuous.“

To be sure, credit cards cause low savings rates as much if not more than any other single factor.

Much like credit-card companies, though, gambling interests have become increasingly savvy about pitching their product.

Dr. Kim Fuller, a University of Miami professor and psychologist, said TV and movies have done a lot to polish gambling’s image.

„Certainly they televise poker games now. It’s televised like a sport,“ she said. „So I know for sure my 17-year-old daughter occasionally will watch that. She would not have any interest in poker were it not on television.“

To Geller, gambling is a losing proposition for most gamblers, but ultimately an entertaining one.

„Anybody that thinks that they are going to make their fortunes in gambling should have their head examined,“ he said.

„You’re doing it for the entertainment value. That’s what people need to understand. It’s entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with paying for entertainment, but in the long run you’re going to lose.“