What can gambling customers and businesses do for gambling law reform?

TAGs: gambling reform, Guest Contributor, Guest Post, Martin Owens, Online Gambling

This is the third instalment of Martin Owens’ Need for Gambling reform Series. You can read part one here and part two here. If you’re interested in having your opinions and ideas published on please contact Bill Beatty.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest”

 Eli Weisel

Three US states have approved online gambling for their residents. Elsewhere in America, however, the effort to expand gambling online is stalling and flailing. But why? Simply put, it’s because gaming interests, including the customers, have not really stood up for themselves. Are the authorities resorting to unjustified, egregious overreaching, even to the point of violating constitutional guarantees? The answer is yes, but one of the oldest principles of the law is: silence indicates that you approve, or at least consent. Simply put, we are not hearing more about gambling expansion and reform because the people’s representatives are not hearing from the people. And that has to change.

Stand Up

What can gambling customers and businesses do for gambling law reform?To begin with, gambling customers and the businesses that serve them have got to get up off their knees. Stop accepting the label of “sinners”, the assertion that gambling is a threat to society. Are there problems with gambling? There are problems with everything that human beings do. But for gambling and gamblers to tamely submit to characterization as a social evil is to fly in the face of reality, as well as suborn their own self-respect.

Let’s look at cold facts and figures. According to the Center for Disease Control, alcohol abuse costs the US economy $253 billion every year. In 2011, the harshest estimate alleged that gambling of every kind came with a price tag of $54 billion . This would seem to be somewhat exaggerated, inasmuch as the National Gambling Study of 1999 put the social cost at around $5 billion; one would think that an increase of 1000% or better would have been remarked on. Anyhow, that same year, the damage done by cardiovascular disease was estimated at $320 billion. The total for mental illness has been pegged as high as $350 billion; tobacco at $293 billion; and illicit drugs at almost $193 billion. It is clear, then, that while gambling does in fact have its problems, and they are not cheap problems, comparison with the other quandaries besetting the USA shows that it is hardly the looming menace alleged by its detractors.

How many Americans are “problem gamblers”? “Pathological gamblers”? That would seem to depend on how wide a particular survey is willing to cast its net. One “study” from 2002 alleged that online gambling had a 74% addiction rate. (Closer scrutiny showed the survey to be based on 400 people, most of whom didn’t even have Internet connections. They were  customers of free clinics.) In 2007, however, a more balanced effort was published by the Cambridge Health Alliance, part of Harvard Medical School. It was not based on self-reported surveys, but on actual empirical data from 40,000 online bettors. Result: problem behavior was limited to about 1% of all participants. “Cui bono?” goes the old lawyers’ question- who benefits? It is worth keeping in mind that many if not most researchers are dependent upon grants to fund their work. And who gets a grant for reporting that all is well?

It’s also worth keeping in mind (and reminding your elected representatives) there are some forms of gambling that are not called gambling. Insurance policies get a pass . So does the stock exchange, which got away with murder, practically wrecking the global economy in 2008 with fraudulent securities based on bad real estate loans. Losses ran to the trillions. Ten thousand casinos put together could not have inflicted a fraction of the damage.. Yet who has spent so much as a night in jail because of it?

The notion that gambling inflicts a unique and irreparable harm on society, such that it must be kept under lock and key, was exploded long ago. It’s long past time that the industry and its customers stop genuflecting to this distortion.

Sound Off

Along with refusing to be labeled as villains, gambling customers and businesses need to raise their own voices. I was surprised to hear the words of a state legislator, at a recent Sacramento gaming conference. He said that of the fifty thousand plus emails, tweets, and text messages he receives from voters every year, less than fifty have anything to do with online and interactive gaming. Well, if we don’t let the elected representatives know what our concerns are, how are they supposed to know?

There are pro-gaming advocacy groups such as Poker Players Alliance and iMega, and they can use all the support they can get. At the same time, just remember that organizations like these deal with the legislature and the law on a formal basis- legislative hearings, lawsuits and so forth. Up to now, what has been missing is the voice of the ordinary man and woman who likes to gamble a little bit now and then, and wants government to respect their choices the same as everyone else’s. Nothing beats direct communication, and with the Internet and social media it is easier than ever before.

We should not be afraid to challenge the assertions of opponents, and put them in proper context. “Responsible gambling”? Perhaps gamblers, in turn, should start asking lawmakers about “responsible budgeting” and “responsible legislation”. And we shouldn’t be afraid to take the gloves off. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association did just that in California earlier this year. When a lawmaker from San Francisco opposed legalizing daily fantasy sports (just in case they weren’t legal already), the FSTA took out Internet and radio ads against him. And no humble promises to ensure “responsible gaming” and give lots of money to the state. It was a flat out declaration: DFS players, this man is trampling on your rights. Maybe it’s time for him to go; plenty more where he came from. And it got results. While online poker seems to be once more hung up in committee in California’s legislature, legalization of DFS is breezing along.

Keep on Keeping’ Score

And finally, gamblers should keep on driving this message home. The people who enjoy a little gambling now and then are honest taxpaying citizens, not sinners or lepers. The businesses who provide the service to them are as respectable and honest as any industry in the USA (and much more closely supervised), not godfathers or gunslingers. There is no reason to harass and oppress them with vague laws and arbitrary actions. There is no reason to single any of them out as criminally inclined, opposed to the public interest. Rather, the industry and its customers need to repeat to their elected representatives a quote from President. Barack Obama: “don’t think were not keeping score here, brother”.

Mr. Owens is a California attorney specializing in the law of Internet and  interactive gaming  since 1998.  Co-author of INTERNET GAMING LAW with Professor Nelson Rose,( Mary Ann Liebert Publishers 2005) ;  Editorial board , Gaming Law Review. Comments/inquiries welcome at [email protected].


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