Skip to main content

The harm that casinos do

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
September 24, 2013 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
David Frum says casinos prey on the Americans who can least afford to lose money.
David Frum says casinos prey on the Americans who can least afford to lose money.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says a new report makes clear the damage casinos do
  • He says they extract earnings from Americans least able to afford it
  • Casinos are bad for property values, don't revive troubled neighborhoods, he says
  • Frum: Government benefits from taxes on casinos and officials don't question the harm

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- What harm does it do?

That's the challenge the casino industry puts to its critics. A new report by the Institute for American Values presents the answer.

Until the late 1980s, casino gambling was illegal almost everywhere in the country. Today, casinos are allowed in 23 states. These newly authorized casinos are not Las Vegas-style grand hotels. Their customers come from nearby. They don't stay overnight. They don't watch a show or eat in a fine restaurant. Perhaps most surprisingly: they don't play cards.

David Frum
David Frum

Modern casino gambling is computer gambling. The typical casino gambler sits at a computer screen, enters a credit card and enters a digital environment carefully constructed to keep them playing until all their available money has been extracted.

Small "wins" are administered at the most psychologically effective intervals, but the math is remorseless: the longer you play, the more you lose. The industry as a whole targets precisely those who can least afford to lose and earns most of its living from people for whom gambling has become an addiction. The IAV report cites a Canadian study that finds that the 75% of casino customers who play only occasionally provide only 4% of casino revenues. It's the problem gambler who keeps the casino in business.

Slot machine payouts vary state by state. Some states set a required minimum: 83% in Arkansas, for example. Others leave that decision up to the casino, as in Georgia and California. Some states require casinos to disclose their payouts. In others, that information is kept confidential. Based on what is published, however, it's a fair generalization that a player can expect to lose 10% to 15% of his or her stake at every session. The cheaper the game, the lower the payout: slots that charge $5 per round pay better than slots that charge a penny.

When New Jersey allowed casinos into Atlantic City back in 1977, casino advocates promised that gambling would revive the town's fading economy. The casinos did create jobs as promised. But merchants who expected foot traffic to return to the city's main street, Atlantic Avenue, were sorely disappointed. The money that comes to the casinos, stays in the casinos. Liquor stores and cash-for-gold outlets now line the city's once-premier retail strip.

The impact of casinos on local property values is "unambiguously" negative, according to the National Association of Realtors. Casinos do not revive local economies. They act as parasites upon them. Communities located within 10 miles of a casino exhibit double the rate of problem gambling. Unsurprisingly, such communities also suffer higher rates of home foreclosure and other forms of economic distress and domestic violence.

The Institute for American Values is sometimes described as a socially conservative group, but with important caveats. Its president, David Blankenhorn, has publicly endorsed same-sex marriage, and its board of directors is chaired by Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton. The IAV is as worried that casinos aggravate income inequality as by their negative impact on family stability.

Don't bring Google Glass to Vegas
First year boom for New York casino

Before the spread of casino gambling, the IAV comments, the typical gambler was more affluent than average: it cost money to travel to Las Vegas. That's no longer true. Low-income workers and retirees provide the bulk of the customers for the modern casino industry. And because that industry becomes an important source of government revenue, the decision to allow casino gambling is a decision to shift the cost of government from the richer to the poorer, and, within the poor, to a subset of vulnerable people with addiction problems.

From the IAV study:

"Modern slot machines are highly addictive because they get into people's heads as well as their wallets. They engineer the psychological experience of being in the 'zone' - a trance-like state that numbs feeling and blots out time/space. For some heavy players, the goals is not winning money. It's staying in the zone. To maintain this intensely desirable state, players prolong their time on the machine until they run out of money - a phenomenon that people in the industry call 'playing to extinction.'"

How heavily does gambling weigh upon the poor, the elderly, the less educated, and the psychologically vulnerable? It's difficult to answer exactly, because U.S. governments have shirked the job of studying the effects of gambling. Most research on the public health effects of gambling in the United States is funded by the industry itself, with a careful eye to exonerating itself from blame. To obtain independent results, the Institute for American Values was obliged, ironically, to rely on studies funded by governments in Britain and Canada.

But here's what we can conclude, in the words of the Institute:

"[S]tate-sponsored casino gambling ... parallels the separate and unequal life patterns in education, marriage, work, and play that increasingly divide America into haves and have-nots. Those in the upper ranks of the income distribution rarely, if ever, make it a weekly habit to gamble at the local casino. Those in the lower ranks of the income distribution often do. Those in the upper ranks rarely, if ever, contribute a large share of their income to the state's take of casino revenues. Those in the lower ranks do."

Is this really OK? Are Americans content to allow the growth of an industry that consciously exploits the predictable weakness of the most vulnerable people? 27 states still say "no." If yours is one such state, fight to keep it that way. If not, it's never too late to find a better way. Read the full Institute for American Values study for yourself and see how much is, quite literally, at sake.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1644 GMT (0044 HKT)
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT