Responsible Gaming: Stepping up to the Plate

12 January 2001
From the ancient Chinese dynasties to the Roman Empire to America's colonial days to virtual wagering on the Internet, gaming has brought complex and thorny issues to the cultures that have harnessed it. Throughout history, gaming's bright promise to generate important economic benefits has always been shadowed by its potential for societal problems. The most frequently cited are problem and underage gambling.

Gambling, the recreation of kings and commoners, has provided an efficient means of raising government revenue for millennia. The Great Wall of China was built in the third century BC with keno profits. In the 1700s, the New York colony approved a lottery to raise money "for the advancement of learning and towards the funding of a college"--an institution today known as Columbia University. Seed money to build Harvard University and Yale was also derived from lotteries. Today, lotteries generate billions of dollars for state and provincial coffers to build roads, fund schools and safeguard the environment.

But over the years, problem gambling has caused quieter difficulties--from the working person whose paycheck is left at the racetrack to British Monarch, King Henry IV, who had to call in his nobles with wheelbarrows full of cash to pay off his gambling debts.

So, is gambling, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, a "salutary instrument wherein the tax is laid on the willing only?" Or is it, as American playwright Wilson Mizner once wrote, "the sure way of getting nothing for something?"

Stepping Toward Responsibility

The answer, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. Today, 37 American states, plus the District of Columbia, and all Canadian provinces offer some form of wagering, whether government sponsored or privately operated. While gambling generates obvious and important economic benefits, its costs to contemporary society - most prominently in the forms of underage and compulsive gambling - are also evident.

Contemporary society has become more adept at balancing the risks and rewards of gambling with a proactive response to problem gamblers. In 1996, the North American Training Institute (NATI) surveyed North American lottery directors on the lottery's response to the management of problem and underage gambling. The survey found near-unanimous agreement among 36 state and provincial lottery directors that their industry should and does play a role in the management of problem gambling, and utilizes an array of responsible gaming approaches.

The survey responses were not simply encouraging words; there were action plans and dollars spent. Minnesota State Lottery Director George Andersen, who helped design the survey, has provided pivotal leadership since 1989 in a state that has seen its commitment to compulsive gamblers grow side by side with the increase in the state's gaming industry. The Iowa Lottery has funded compulsive gambling programs for nearly 15 years. In Ontario, representatives of the provincial lottery commission sit on a task force and advise the Ministry of Health on issues concerning responsible gambling. A Massachusetts Lottery director presented a keynote address at the North American Think Tank on Youth Gambling Issues held at Harvard University in 1995. The Ohio Lottery has a proactive statewide approach and the Arizona Lottery has recently spearheaded a statewide problem gambling Helpline and public awareness campaign.

The vast majority of adult men and women who gamble do so responsibly. It is important to realize, however, that one problem gambler is one too many--a lesson that progressive lottery officials have taken to heart and to practice.

Just as problem gamblers cut across all gaming entities, public and private gaming and wagering operators should divide the financial responsibility for addressing the needs of such social problems. To do so, survey respondents agreed, is to be a responsible corporate citizen while at the same time mitigating criticism of gambling by anti-gaming groups.

A Step in the Right Direction: Underage Gambling

Recent research by the Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions estimates that about 1.3 percent of the general adult population has a serious gambling disorder. The same research showed that young people are at a disproportionately higher risk for developing a gambling disorder.

Low-tech, non-institutionalized forms of gambling - cards, sports and games of personal skill such as pool - are the most popular among young bettors. Lottery, pulltabs and casino-type games are popular in those states and provinces where they are legal (North American Think Tank on Youth Gambling Issues Final Report, 1995).

Young gamblers are especially vulnerable to cultural messages that gambling is glamorous and provides avenues to wealth, power and freedom. But for many young people, gambling may have little to do with money. Problems at home, low self-esteem and role modeling by parents and family members may set a teen on the path toward gambling problems.

While "family affair" gambling - trips to the racetrack, a turn at the bingo hall or an entry into a football pool, grandparents purchasing scratch-off tickets for grandchildren, parents organizing a "casino night" at the school - may seem harmless, such messages of approval come without any warning that gambling can be highly addicting for youngsters. Preliminary studies on the subject indicate that adults inadvertently promote gambling as an activity without consequence or potential for addiction because they themselves are unaware of the dangers that might come with underage gambling.

To address compulsive gambling among young people, it is first necessary to prevent minors from gambling in the first place. Vendors have accepted the very real dangers--both to themselves and their customers--of selling tobacco and alcohol to minors. Lottery retailers and their employees are increasingly adopting that same sense of caution and accountability when it comes to selling lottery tickets to youngsters.

Stepping Up Responsible Gaming: A Practical Approach

State and provincial lotteries have a host of responsible gaming tools at their disposal, beginning with clear and direct signs that no one will condone or allow underage gambling. Point-of-purchase signs and a rigorous awareness program for lottery retailers help to create a policy of no tolerance.

Progressive lottery operators and their associated retailers can--and have--gone a step further. The can donate informational brochures and youth gambling prevention educational curricula to schools and youth groups within the community. They can sponsor community-based underage gambling prevention initiatives, such as poster contests. A number of lotteries have already inserted responsible gaming taglines into the advertisements and collateral materials and promoted a "Please Play Responsibly" awareness campaign.

The First Step - The Right Thing To Do

The gaming industry's response to problem gamblers and underage gambling has been commendable. North American lottery officials have been especially enthusiastic about promoting responsible gaming and preventing kids from purchasing lottery tickets.

For those few who have been reluctant to address the issue, it's not too late. And it is more important than ever. The consequences of ignoring a responsible gaming policy and action plan are too great.

Getting in Step - Responsible Gaming Collaborations

As with any social problem, the solution lies in our collective political will - a will that demands open eyes and open communication.

If our elected leaders realize the severe consequences of problem gambling, they will devote the fiscal resources to address those consequences. Similarly, if the gaming and wagering industries believe that a progressive, responsible approach to the issue best serves their needs, they too, will contribute time and money to that end. If the business community realizes that problem gambling can lead to lower productivity and criminal activity in the workplace, they too will step forward to become part of the solution. And if philanthropic foundations see a societal ill in underage gambling, their grant making will focus on the problem.

The details of the design and implementation of a responsible gaming program are certain to keep evolving. For now, the leaders of North American lottery organizations have taken crucial first steps toward focusing that will. Each of those steps helps create a plan that will allow society to continue to enjoy the bright benefits of gambling while mitigating its darker potential.

Elizabeth George is the chief executive officer of the North American Training Institute ( For more than a decade, NATI has provided responsible gaming programs for the gaming and wagering industries throughout the world. Its programs include a 24-hour compulsive gambling Helpline service with language translations, conceptualizing of company responsible gaming mission statements, policy statements, employee assistance programs, program collaborations and customized responsible gaming multimedia programs. For further information, contact: North American Training Institute, 314 West Superior Street, Suite 702, Duluth, MN 55802, USA or (218) 722-1503.