Casino gambling: providing informed consent

Reasonable doubts remain about the studies touting the benefits of casino gambling to Massachusetts, especially if today’s Boston Globe is correct that the legislature only asked for an analysis of benefits and not a cost-benefits analysis.

Former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and former Governor Mike Dukakis have raised significant warnings about the economic payoff, citing negative economic experiences in states that are home to casinos or racinos.

But let’s for the sake of argument posit that Speaker Robert DeLeo’s numbers hold, that casino gambling would have a positive net impact on jobs and revenues in the Commonwealth. Even then, shouldn’t we still get more data on how the system will work? Newton Representative Ruth Balser has filed an amendment to the casino gambling bill that has intriguing possibilities.

Balser, as reported today on WBUR radio, would require that every slot machine be posted with a notice to gamblers about the odds of winning. Think an explanation on every gambling machine explaining the odds and algorithms of the machine would spoil the fun? Not much, I suspect.

Consider the other areas in which people get warnings about products and services that are supposed to enable them to make decisions in an informed way before embarking on an activity. Every purchase of prescription medicine these days comes with warnings of possible side effects: diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, hyperactivity, hallucinations, depression, death. Manufacturers of everything from hair dryers to automobiles warn us of the pitfalls of using their products. Do we respond to every such warnings by not taking the pills or buying the appliances? Not so much! But sometimes the warnings do give pause, and at least, theoretically, give us potentially useful information by which to make our decisions.

But why warn about slots and not blackjack tables or roulette? According to an op-ed piece by Balser in the Newton TAB, slots are the biggest rip-off of all, and an estimated 80 percent of the revenue in gambling comes from slots. Testimony before Balser’s committee by MIT sociologist Dr. Natasha Schull indicated that, “Every feature of gambling machines — mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics — is geared to increase ‘time on device’ and encourage gamblers to ‘play to extinction,’ as the industry jargon goes (in other words, until their funds are depleted.)”

Balser proposes other regulatory tools in Amendment 99 to H.4591. One, a proposal to limit “per patron” gambling losses to $500 a day seems uncomfortably too “Big Brother” and evokes the bizarre image of means testing gambling patrons as the next reductio ad absurdum. But posting the odds seems eminently reasonable.

We all want to choose our own pleasures and vices and not have the government dictate how we have fun. But, if in fact, gambling addiction can be linked to crime, bankruptcy, domestic violence and suicide (not unlike heroin addiction), and have consequences that go beyond the individuals, isn’t there a point at which private pleasures become public health menaces? This doesn’t necessarily argue for banning slots altogether but at least supports the concept of posting the information for gamblers on the odds of their winning.

Clearly, the Surgeon General ‘s warning labels on cigarettes that smoking may be bad for your health didn’t drive the likes of Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds out of business, but it was a first step in holding both the companies and the users of their products responsible for the outcomes.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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