I’d like to take a break from speculating on the ballot count in the governor’s race to actually talk about something important. Underage gambling.
As my regular readers know, I was a vociferous opponent of Tim Eyman’s I-892, an initiative that would have put 18,255 slot machines into over 2000 locations in nearly every community in the state. But just because I-892 was crushed at the polls with less than 38% of the vote, doesn’t mean I’m going to let this issue die.
As an editorial in today’s Seattle P-I points out, I-892 was rejected because Washington voters simply don’t want more gambling. The No campaign had a very simple task — they didn’t have to convince voters that putting slot machines into our neighborhoods is a bad idea — they merely had to convince voters that I-892 would put slot machines into our neighborhoods.
Washingtonians understand that expanding gambling comes with social costs that simply are not worth the extra tax revenues. But I’m not sure we fully understand exactly how much gambling can cost us.
Back on 9/30 I told you about an extraordinary documentary shot by some recent grads of Shorewood High School that showed teenagers — some as young as 12 — caught up in the current gambling craze (“Problem gambling isn’t kid’s play“.) The documentary was later the subject of a KING-5 TV special report: “Underage gambling out of control“.
Thanks to a tip from problem gambling advocate Jennifer McCausland, the Washington State Gambling Commission and Washington State Liquor Control Board conducted a joint sting operation at seven Seattle-area mini-casinos. WSGC officials were surprised to find that a “very young looking” sixteen-year-old was able to gamble and purchase alcohol at three of the seven targeted card rooms.
You’d think with a major gambling initiative on the ballot, this would have been big news in the weeks leading up to the election, but it’s only during the past week that this story is beginning to get a bit of play. Both KOMO-4 TV and KING-5 TV ran pieces yesterday showing seized surveillance footage from the sting operation. [Casinos busted for allowing 16-year-old to gamble, buy alcohol] It’s pretty stunning.
Eyman pooh-poohed it during the campaign, but Washington — and much of the rest of the nation — is facing a growing public health crisis: compulsive gambling, an addiction that is just as real and destructive as drug and alcohol abuse. The rapid expansion of gambling here and elsewhere only serves to normalize the experience for our children, while state lotteries spend millions of dollars marketing gambling as the ticket to Easy Street. And the current poker craze, fueled by coverage on ESPN (and even local TV!) will inevitably serve as a gateway towards a lifetime of addiction for an entire generation.
Yes, only 5% of adults are problem gamblers (although they account for as much as 60% of casino profits), but according to a 1999 study, the addiction already afflicted more than one in twelve WA teens. And that was before the poker craze, at a time when total state gambling revenues were half what they are today.
While Eyman promises a son-of-892, that’s not my main concern; the gambling industry is not going to throw good money after bad, and there’s no way he can qualify the initiative for the ballot without their cash.
My concern is that we have a unique opportunity to do something about this problem, and we can’t afford to blow it. I-892, the Shorewood High documentary and the WSGC sting operation have all helped to create public awareness of this growing crisis, while Democratic control of the Legislature offers a hope of funding problem gambling treatment and prevention programs. Such legislation was blocked in the Republican-controlled Senate last session, and regardless of who becomes the next Governor, we need to pressure Olympia to finally take action.
We need greater enforcement of underage gambling laws, and stricter penalties for their violation. But most important, we need to start educating parents and teens about the warning signs of problem gambling, and the very real dangers of lifelong addiction. Ms. McCausland’s Second Chance Washington is a great start, but it’s the responsibility of the commercial and tribal gambling industries to start paying for the problem they are creating.
This is not the last you’ll hear from me on this subject, regardless of what Tim does.