Is Gambling Tobacco?Sin City 1, Puritans 0

Is Gambling Tobacco?Sin City 1, Puritans 0

Is Gambling Tobacco?Sin City 1, Puritans 0

Printed.
Nov. 14 1998 3:30 AM

Is Gambling Tobacco?Sin City 1, Puritans 0

The national gambling commission rolls into Sin City and comes up snake eyes.

Gambling's would-be federal regulators--the National Gambling Impact Study Commission--went to Las Vegas this week to hold hearings. In today's dispatch, we learn how gambling's foes seek to demonize wagering as a pernicious tobaccolike vice. In yesterday's dispatch, gambling's foes learn the folly of having brought their anti-sin crusade to an adult Disneyland.

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Tuesday's overpowering show of force by the Nevada gambling aristocracy has had at least one audible effect on the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. Wednesday, even commission Chair Kay Coles James, a gambling skeptic, succumbs to the hideous Vegas euphemism: She begins referring to the "gaming industry."

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

After Tuesday's casino triumphalism, Wednesday is a comedown, eight hours of policy panels on teen gambling, compulsive gambling, gambling regulation, gambling marketing, and gambling credit practices. It is tough slogging, but for the first time I sense that this commission--though divided, underfunded, timid, and without any power beyond exhortation--isn't entirely useless. It may finally settle this question: Is gambling Hollywood or tobacco? Entertainment or vice?

The sleek Vegas types, whose Strip palaces scramble casinos, theaters, restaurants, arcades, discos, cabarets, theme parks, concert halls, sports arenas, and museums into one giant orgy of amusement, have been selling the idea that gambling is just entertainment--Disney in the desert. This effort has largely succeeded, because Vegas is still the dominant image of American gambling, if not the dominant reality.

The antis, meanwhile, cry that gambling is like cigarettes: unsafe for kids, viciously addictive, deceptively marketed, unhealthy, expensive, and unacceptable unless mightily regulated.

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Judging by today's hearings and by conversations with most of the commissioners, the tobacco model is winning. Today's panelists tell the commission that kids are starting to gamble too young and are getting addicted too easily, that compulsive gambling appears to be increasing as gambling spreads, that gambling marketing may be designed to addict customers, and that the industry exploits problem gamblers by allowing them to draw repeated credit card advances from ATMs on casino floors. The testimony clearly impresses the commissioners and seems especially to impress the three nonaligned commissioners who will be the swing votes on the June 1999 report.

It is starting to become clear what that report will say. The commission won't (and can't) take any grand stand against gambling. Instead it will opt for small, targeted policies, concentrating on compulsive gambling. It will probably propose that casinos and state lotteries fund gambling-addiction research and that casinos take much stronger measures to bar problem gamblers from wagering. The commission may recommend that gaming taxes be used to underwrite treatment of pathological gamblers and that insurance companies be encouraged to cover gambling addiction. Similarly, the commission will try to reduce gamblers' access to cash by limiting the size of ATM advances and prodding casinos to remove the machines from their floors.

The commission will also push the industry to do more to prevent kids from gambling. It will call for heavier regulation of Indian gambling and will probably try to ban or severely regulate Internet gambling, perhaps by forbidding gambling companies from running online casinos. It will rebuke state lotteries for their deceptive marketing and will try to force them to post odds and stop targeting the poor. In short, it will treat gambling as a tobaccolike vice.

If the comments of the pro-industry commissioners can be believed, the industry will happily endorse such a report. Gamblers don't quite accept the cigarette analogy--though commission member Bill Bible, a former chief of the Nevada Gaming Commission, did concede that gambling was like alcohol--but they're happy to sign on to the specific measures. The casino industry is even trying to get ahead of the commission. It has already established a (mostly) independent center to fund research into pathological gambling. I suspect that the industry will not only agree to the commission's recommendations but will become their strongest advocate. Casino owners will avidly lobby Congress and state legislatures to enact the recommendations into law.

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W hy should the pro-gamblers cooperate with a critical study? Because it provides superb cover for them. It medicalizes the problem of compulsive gambling, blaming it on psychological abnormality rather than industry machination. Likewise, cracking down on compulsives is also politically cost-effective. In exchange for losing a few compulsive gamblers, the casinos will (falsely) appear more concerned with the health of their customers than with profits.

The cigarette agenda will also distract the commission and the public from the true reasons for worry. A few years ago, gambling was confined to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. It is now thriving in 48 states, and there is no sign that anyone can stop it. In this election, gambling interests dropped $100 million on a single California ballot initiative, toppled governors in two states, and bought senators and representatives by the crate. What the commission ought to be investigating is whether the gambling industry has become so powerful that it's politically untouchable. But it can't, because the gambling industry has become so powerful that it's politically untouchable.

The antis can call gambling "tobacco." They can call it "vice." They can call it "a big red balloon" for all that the industry cares. As long as the commission just nibbles around the edges, the casino operators and state lotteries will be happy to indulge it. The pro-gambling folks will win credit for cooperating, without having to do anything that really hurts. The last national gambling commission was in the mid-1970s. If the gamblers play along with this commission's timid recommendations, they'll be safe for another 20 years.

An Apology

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I owe an apology to Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan, whom I criticized yesterday for using the term "Indian country" during a speech critical of Indian casinos. As several readers pointed out to me, "Indian country" is a common phrase in the West and has no derogatory connotations. I'm sorry, Senator.

Talk about quick defeats: The first sign I see outside the MGM Grand ballroom all but declares that the National Gambling Impact Study Commission has already lost. The sign reads: "National Gaming Impact Study Commission."

"Gaming"?

In Las Vegas, the euphemizers reign. Once upon a time, the casino owners decided that "gambling" was too crude, too avaricious, to describe their fair business. So "gambling" disappeared in Las Vegas, and "gaming" has risen in its place. He who controls language controls ideas, and at today's commission hearing, it is perfectly clear who controls the language. Video slot machines crammed into convenience stores--perhaps the most pernicious form of legal gambling there is--are called "retail gaming." People who own casinos are not "casino owners," they are "gaming visionaries." Pathological gamblers are "problem gamers"--as if they're having trouble mastering the rules of Monopoly. And the National Gambling Impact Study Commission is reborn as the National Gaming Impact Study Commission.

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The gambling industry did everything in its power to stop the establishment of this commission two years ago, but Congress and a fervent grassroots anti-gambling group eventually foisted it on the industry. The nine member blue-ribbon panel was charged with assessing the social and economic impact of gambling, and it will issue a final report to Congress and the president in June 1999. Even though the panel was carefully balanced between pro- and anti-gambling leaders, it was supposed to be Vegas' nemesis. The industry and Las Vegas' pro-gambling media quaked in anticipation of the onerous regulations and taxes the commission might recommend.

But they quake no more. Whatever national momentum the anti-gamblers had dissolved in last week's elections. The industry routed opponents in state after state. Missouri voters passed a ballot initiative to allow boat casinos. Californians voted to expand Indian casinos. In South Carolina and Alabama, voters expelled anti-lottery, anti-gambling Republican governors and replaced them with pro-lottery Democrats. The gambling industry spent more than $100 million on political contributions and issue ads. It has never been fatter, happier, or more secure.

"My goodness, no politician can withstand their resources," Focus on the Family's James Dobson, the commission's leading gambling opponent, tells me. The industry's political clout has emasculated the commission, Dobson continues: "Our report won't be acted on by the president or Congress. They are too heavily influenced by gambling money. Almost all the leaders of Congress are on the dole." It has also become obvious that the commission has too many pro-gambling members to produce a report that recommends taxes or other real penalties on the industry.

So the commission's two day visit to Gomorrah has been transformed from a charged political event to a kind of victory lap for gaming. Nevada Gov. Bob Miller and the "gaming visionaries" have been planning for these hearings for months, hoping to use them to demonstrate the might and sanctity and goodness of the Nevada gambling industry.

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The MGM Grand, which is run by commission member Terrence Lanni, is itself the first exhibit of the Vegas triumphalists. It is gaudy testimony that consumers, at least, have no problem with this business. The MGM Grand, a k a "The City of Entertainment," has 5,000 rooms--the corridor outside my room is 200 yards long, so long I can't see its end--to feed the endless supply of slot machines, craps tables, and roulette wheels. David Cassidy performs here every night--twice! A few steps outside on the Strip is still more overwhelming evidence that Las Vegas has won the popular vote. New York, New York is just across the street, the $1.6 billion Bellagio is one door down, and a half-scale Eiffel Tower is going up next door. The setting has, as the pro-gambling folks no doubt hoped, stunned some of the gambling opponents. I asked one anti-gambling activist who had never before been to Vegas what she thinks of it. She could only blurt out "Wow."

The hearings, too, reinforce the Glorious Las Vegas theme. Frank Fahrenkopf, the industry's top lobbyist (who is paid so much he can afford monogrammed shirt cuffs--I saw them), holds forth cheerfully outside the ballroom, celebrating the electoral triumph of freedom over religious moralist tyranny. Inside, the room is packed with more than 600 people in neon lime green T-shirts that read "Unions and Gaming: Together for a Better Life." They are members of the major casino union, here to cheer on their employers and their union. (Most of them, it must be said, are getting paid to do this.)

Chairwoman Kay Coles James, a Christian conservative and skeptic of gambling, opens the hearing by assuring the crowd that the committee is toothless: "We're not here to take anyone's job. ... We have no power to do anything except make recommendations." This sets the mood for most of the day: Vegas is great, so you'd better leave it alone! The local government, by all appearances a wholly owned subsidiary of the casinos, puts on a bravura performance. Gov. Miller opens the show with a 15 minute hymn to Las Vegas. It is the first of many statistical barrages about Nevada's one-ders: No. 1 in job growth, No. 1 in population growth, and No. 1 on planet Earth in per capita Girl Scout troops--and Boy Scout troops!

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L ater in the day, Nevada's senators and both its congressmen appear to chew out the commission for even thinking that Nevada might have a dark side. They pay tribute to Nevada's sophisticated gambling industry, especially its regulation (much stricter than other gambling states) and its use of gambling taxes to fund state services. It is one of the ironies of Nevada politics that its Republican congressmen (Jim Gibbons and John Ensign) end up crediting their state's success to government regulation and corporate taxation.

There are also a fair share of gleeful gambling regulators, bookmakers, and casino employees among the panels of expert witnesses the commission hears from. Critics who gripe about the perils of sports gambling and the evils of convenience store slot machines leaven the pro-gambling folks. Everyone, including the gambling industry shills, agrees that Internet gambling is evil and should be destroyed. Everyone agrees to this because no one in Las Vegas is making any money off Internet gambling. If they were, you can be sure they would explain why it's as American as nickel slots and scratch-off games.

Pro-Vegas forces are also perfectly happy to take shots at Indian gambling, the chief economic threat to Nevada's prosperity. The expansion of Indian casinos resulting from last week's California voter initiative will slam Las Vegas, cutting its gambling revenues by $400 million a year. So the Vegans repeatedly swing at casinos in "Indian country" (that's Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan's term--I'm not joking) for being insufficiently regulated and taxed. One tribal chief I spoke to calls this "red baiting."

(Pause for an aesthetic observation: I am sitting right behind the witnesses, and after a while I begin to separate them into the Wides and the Narrows. The Wides are men in suits with enormous backs and enormous bellies, men who eat and eat and used to play football. They all testify to their love of gambling. The Narrows are thin and generally disapprove of it. I begin to wonder whether fondness for gambling correlates with general indulgence, and dislike correlates with asceticism, and decide that they probably do.)

During the last hour of the day, the public comment period, the union sends a parade of casino employees to the microphone to hallelujah the gaming industry. Housekeepers, cooks, and slot change girls, almost all black or Latina, tell the same story: I was working a dead-end job in another state, "then I heard about Las Vegas, where there's opportunity!" I moved here, landed a job at a union casino with high pay, free medical insurance, a pension, and "now I am buying a house." The stories are intensely moving, by far the most persuasive tribute to the Strip that I've ever heard.

Still, for all the Vegan triumphalism in the air, it's impossible not to be charmed by the chief gambling opponent, the Rev. Tom Grey. Grey is utterly irrepressible. A Vietnam rifleman turned Methodist minister, Grey has spent the last eight years evangelizing against gambling. He founded the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, the primary force behind the commission's creation. (Grey, in a rare acknowledgement of defeat, has just renamed it the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, tacitly recognizing that gambling is here to stay.) He is a genial motormouth and shameless promoter of the cause. He wears a gigantic "CasiNO" button in the casino. He posed for People in a shepherd's robe. He says "I would do anything short of lighting myself on fire in the Capitol rotunda to stop gambling." He is so excitable that I have to yank him out of the way of an oncoming car when he gets too wrapped up in one of his soliloquies.

He and his Las Vegas allies, a former Las Vegas city councilman named Steve Miller and an inner city venture capitalist named Otis Harris, invite me on a tour of Las Vegas. "Behind the Mirage," they call it. For two hours, we cruise the streets behind the casinos. They show me all the evidence of gambling blight you'd never want to see, from a youth-center-turned-crack-house to pawn shops to sex shops to down at heels casinos to quickie motels. All the while, they keep up a patter about how terrible a neighbor the casino industry is and how superficial Las Vegas' prosperity is.

It's very grim and mostly persuasive. Still, when we turn back on to the Strip, and pass the jaw-dropping Stratosphere and Circus Circus and Bellagio and the MGM Grand--a 30 story tower bathed in fabulous emerald light, I realize why Grey's task is hopeless here. He is committing the cardinal sin of Vegas. All he wants to do is talk about losers. In Las Vegas, under the thrilling lights of the Strip, no one wants to hear about losers. In the land of gaming, not gambling, everyone is sure he's a winner.