Reporting for the Tacoma News Tribune, Ian Demsky has the scoop on the State Lottery’s new “enhanced” marketing plan to boost impulse sales of scratch tickets by at least 20 percent, and I’m truly impressed with the expertise of his sources:
Informed of the promotion, one gaming critic called using such tactics during an economic downturn “cruel.”
“They are looking to create compulsion,” Seattle blogger David Goldstein said last week. “That’s how the industry works.”
And I’m not just pulling that critique out of my ass. As I’ve written on numerous occasions, games like slot machines and scratch tickets are scientifically designed to create compulsion—hence the refreshingly honest name of the scratch ticket vendor designing and testing the Lottery’s enhanced marketing plan: “Scientific Games.”
I’ve no doubt that the expanded retail displays, the 48 new scratch ticket games and their seductive second chance feature, were carefully designed in consultation with behavioral psychologists, so as to specifically enable problem gamblers and exploit their weaknesses. Problem gamblers may comprise only 5 percent of their customers, but they can produce over 50 percent of the gambling industry’s profits. This is no secret, and like any business, the gambling industry has always catered to its best customers.
So what’s the problem?
Goldstein, a blogger who has advocated against gambling expansion, said the program makes sense – if the state’s primary interest is to maximize profits.
“But it’s the state,” he said. “In the end, its purpose is to provide for the welfare of the citizens. The lottery is at cross-purposes with itself.”
Again, I’m not pulling this stuff out of my ass. Indeed, the Legislative Declaration that prefaces Washington’s gambling statutes is quite specific:
The public policy of the state of Washington on gambling is to keep the criminal element out of gambling and to promote the social welfare of the people by limiting the nature and scope of gambling activities and by strict regulation and control.
Notice that there’s nothing in that opening statement about maximizing state profits. Nor should there be. The social and economic costs of problem and pathological gambling are simply too high.
Problem gambling is a medically recognized addictive behavior associated with a much higher incidence of other addictions, including tobacco, alcohol and drugs, as well as other dangerous behaviors. And even the lottery’s own problem gambling study suggests that scratch tickets often serve as a gateway to other forms of gambling. So why should the state spend money to promote behavior that harms the welfare of its citizens?
The people who stand to profit the most from this enhanced marketing plan are retailers, and the shareholders at New York based Scientific Games, certainly not the customers, and not state taxpayers, who typically see only 20 cents on the dollar flow back into state coffers out of the more than half billion dollars of revenues the State Lottery takes in annually.
Gov. Gregoire did the right thing in 2006 by instructing the State Lottery to scrap plans to market toward teenagers. She should once again remind lottery officials that they are not in the business of maximizing revenues at any cost.