State lotteries, to be successful, must advertise heavily to encourage participation. The British policy, in contrast, is to allow gambling, but not permit it to be "stimulated." Lottery advertising promotes a fantasy of wealth, luxury and an instantly problem-free life. The millions of dollars lost, and the tiny odds of winning, are rarely mentioned.
New games are continually being developed to keep people interested. Media give the lotteries free advertising by announcing the prizes offered, the winning numbers and the multimillion-dollar winners. Is the lottery habit-forming? Lottery administrators hope it is; they want the repeat business. Many people buy tickets each time they go to a store or news-stand.
"The games most closely associated with habitual gambling are State lotteries and....numbers. Habitual players of these games may not even define themselves as 'gamblers,' so completely integrated into everyday work and living are these activities". Most people risk and lose small amounts. But a sizable minority lose more than they can afford. Some become compulsive gamblers.
The ads "never show the person who loses his home to gambling, people who have attempted suicide. The common notion is that gambling isn't dangerous to your health or well-being. But it can be" (Richard Richardson, executive director of the Maryland State Council on Compulsive Gambling). Heavy promotion and advertising "is developing a new generation of gamblers," he said. Some people hoped that lotteries would reduce illegal gambling. But they haven't. Once people start playing the lottery, they often begin other forms of gambling, including illegal gambling. State sponsored games have reduced the stigma against gambling.
The Poor Bet
One of the most troubling aspects of the lotteries is they encourage poor people to become even poorer. Lottery tickets are cheap, require no skill to play and are easily available, making them attractive, especially to the poor. Though the poor may spend about the same amount of money as the rich, it's a much higher percentage of their income. A California study found that the poor spend 2.1 percent of their income on lotteries, while the rich spend only 0.3 percent.
"College-educated people spend considerably less on lottery tickets on average than do those whose education is limited to high school or less". The lottery acts like a tax (voluntary but heavily promoted) that takes a bigger percent from the poor than from others. A grocery store in California observed food sales dropped by the amount that lottery sales increased. The store stopped selling tickets, saying, "We feel that it is wrong to offer our customers the opportunity to gamble with their food dollars."