A Lottery for Tennessee? / #2
By: Rubel Shelly

I can imagine a circumstance in which a lottery or similar game of chance is just harmless fun. Ever go to a paid-ticket event where a door prize is awarded? Sounds a bit like a lottery to me. Ever make a donation to the Boy Scouts or some other worthy cause where each donor was automatically entered into a drawing for a free weekend at Bob’s Dude Ranch? Sounds very much like a lottery. Ever pay $50 or $100 to play golf in a charity fundraiser – where anyone getting a hole-in-one on the sixth hole won a new car? Sounds even more like a lottery because the odds are so staggering!

So why wouldn’t a state-sponsored lottery in Tennessee be the same sort of thing? Why should anyone deny the opportunity to those who want to take such risks? Aren’t a few narrow-minded people trying to keep Tennessee from the financial boon lotteries bring both to players and to government coffers?

Among the several ways to answer these questions, this seems primary: Any form of state-sponsored gambling requires government not only to sponsor and regulate it but to endorse and promote gambling in order to make it attractive to greater numbers of people. Just examine the budget of any state that has a lottery. After an initial few years of excitement over the game, millions and millions of dollars have to be pumped into convincing more (and younger) players to participate.

A recent article in the Hartford Courant (Rick Green, “States Manipulate Lottery Dreamers,” Oct.6, 2002) was very critical of tactics forced upon state governments because of their commitment to lotteries. That newspaper obtained internal marketing documents through the Freedom of Information Act – after the state fought against it in court and lost – about lottery tactics in Connecticut. Here is a damning quote from their investigative report: “Taken together, the documents reveal a go-for-the-jugular attitude toward the public. And it is strikingly at odds with the lottery industry’s carefully crafted image as a whimsical source of harmless fun and benefactor of education.”

MDI Entertainment Inc. is a Connecticut-based company that develops instant-win games for state lotteries. Some of the responses to customer surveys about its Harley-Davidson motorcycle scratch-off card show what the paper called a “darker side” to those games. “I spent so much money on these scratch tickets I could’ve put a down payment on [a Harley],” confessed one player. Another wrote: “I enjoy the lotteries so much. Sometimes I spend my bill money.”

If those door-prize drawings or charity golf tournaments with big hole-in-one prizes produced similar results, they would cease to be harmless. Lotteries constitute government promotion of a behavior that undermines citizen responsibility. There is something fishy going on here!

Daria Anderson wants to win big money, so she has turned to Connecticut’s more expensive lottery games. The prizes are bigger, but the odds are greater. “In order to win big, you have to play big,” she says. So she plays several times every week. She even won $3,000 earlier this year. Still, she admits, “I’m not ahead.”

“If I was a smarter person, I would not play. It’s really a fool’s game,” Anderson says. “It provides an instant gratification. For that split second you are able to dream; within twenty seconds you know whether your dream has come true or not.”

Harmless fun? Sounds like a trap. And states should not bait traps for the people they are supposed to serve and protect.