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"We would all benefit from an independent review of slots and casinos...that's what we elected Legislators to do"
-- Scott Harshbarger,
former Massachusetts Attorney General
Waltham Forum on Expanding Gambling
September 10, 2009

No major public policy issue exists in Massachusetts that is more talked about yet less understood than the purest form of state-sponsored predatory gambling: slot machines.

While there are many well-intentioned public officials, reporters, editorial writers and bloggers who discuss the issue in terms of state revenues and potential jobs, most know virtually nothing about the product design, the technology, the marketing and the business model used by the predatory gambling trade. Most don't even use the product frequently, if at all. And most don't have personal relationships with the out-of-control gamblers who make up nearly all of the profits.

The very important policy question before the people of Massachusetts is not a debate about social forms of gambling like the kitchen table poker game with the guys from the neighborhood. It's about predatory gambling - using gambling to prey on human weakness for profit - and a business model that relies on 90% of its gambling profits coming from 10% of the people who use the product, making nine out of every ten patrons virtually irrelevant to their revenues.¹

The era of phony prosperity, casino capitalism and Bernie Madoff-style "something for nothing schemes" is over. An era of irresponsibility that we and our children will be paying for.

How is predatory gambling in the form of slot machines different than social forms of gambling?

There are at least four major differences between social forms of gambling like the kitchen table poker game versus predatory gambling products like slot machines:
  • the speed of the games
  • the kind of "buzz" or high people get when they play
  • the amount of money people lose
  • the predatory marketing used to promote it
Slot machines are the purest form of predatory gambling.

What makes slot machines so predatory and deceptive?

There's little understanding of the machines and marketing that drive the predatory gambling trade. According to MIT Professor Natasha Schüll, the goal of the technology is no secret: how to get people to play longer, faster and more intensively. Every feature of the machine - the mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics- is geared, in the actual language of the predatory gambling trade, to get gamblers to "play to extinction" - which means until their money is gone.

A slot machine doesn't have a handle to pull or use reels - they use buttons and video screens. Dozens of games can be played per minute. Instead of actual reels, they have virtual reels that rely on complicated algorithms and virtual reel mapping, concepts that few people in the predatory gambling trade itself understand - much less policy makers and citizens considering these machines in their own communities.

According to Dr. Schüll, when you look at what these algorithms are doing, it's a high tech version of "weighting the deck" or "loading the dice." (For you non-gamblers out there, that means the machines are cheating.) What you're seeing on the screen is not an accurate representation of what's happening inside the machine.²

How addictive are slot machines?

Predatory gambling supporters nearly always refer to gambling addiction rates in general population numbers - but most people don't gamble regularly. A truer representation of the addictiveness of the product is to look at the people who use electronic gambling machines once a month or more. After all, isn't that really the key public health question? Is there a difference between traveling to a casino a handful of times a year versus putting these machines near your community where people can play them every day or weekly?

The answer is yes, there is a major difference. A prominent government study spotlighted that nearly 1 out of 2 people who use electronic gambling machines once or more per month show problem gambling behavior.³ And it's these out-of-control gamblers who are the primary source of the predatory gambling trade's profits.4

Why are the machines so addictive when people are provided frequent access to them?

Because they cause changes in brain chemistry that are as addictive as drugs, according to National Council on Problem Gambling Executive Director Keith Whyte.5 Neurological studies show that gambling rewards the body with the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that causes a sensation similar to taking cocaine. 6

Using a slot machine or taking a hit of cocaine only one time won't necessarily turn every person into an addict. But making such products easily accessible to the general public so they can get that buzz or intense escape anytime they want is nothing short of an addiction delivery system... all in the name of funding public services we all use.

And remember, it's not just the adult slot machine gamblers of today that our State will be turning into addicts by providing easy access to this product - it will be the players of tomorrow - our children, and their children, too.

What role does slot machines and state-sponsored predatory gambling play in America's debt culture?

Nearly every state Attorney General in America has been suing subprime lenders for their predatory lending practices. Congress recently acted to roll back the predatory practices of credit card companies. Yet here in Massachusetts, there is a massive effort to expand the most predatory institution still standing in America - state-sponsored predatory gambling.

What this is doing in Massachusetts is creating two classes of people: the Investor Class and the Lottery Class.

While most of us are part of the Investor Class, putting money away in retirement accounts and 529 college funds for our kids, the state is turning tens of thousands of people who are small earners with the potential to be small savers into a new class of habitual bettors - the Lottery Class. They represent the 1 out of 5 Americans who, according to the Consumer Federation of America, think the best way to achieve long-term financial security is to use state-sponsored gambling products.7

In these difficult economic times, why would government promote slot machines that prevent tens of thousands of low and moderate-income of Massachusetts residents to join the class of savers and investors... to accumulate the capital they need to live the real American Dream?

Imagine if our nation's leaders during the Great Depression had said they were going to legalize slot machines to make up for "lost revenue" and to pay for the war effort. How easy it would have been. Instead, they challenged the country to act together and buy savings bonds, which ultimately led America to achieve the highest savings rate of the 20th century. It helped spur a massive economic boom in which everyone prospered. The gap between rich and poor was the smallest it has been in the last 80 years.

Leaders then led America through turbulent times by inspiring us to hope for the best and then challenging us to go work for it. They called on us to invest in a common purpose. It's the same kind of spirit we need today.

How do slot machines violate America's core democratic principles?

Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil Rights Movement and biographer of Martin Luther King, and also one of America's most outspoken voices on state-sponsored predatory gambling has said,

"State-sponsored predatory gambling is essentially a corruption of democracy because it violates the most basic premises that make democracy unique: that you can be self-governing, you can be honest and open about your disagreements as well as your agreements, and that you trust other people that you are in this together. That's what a compact of citizens is. And the first-step away from it is to play each other for suckers. We're going to trick them into thinking they are going to get rich but they are really going to be paying my taxes."8
The slot machine and casino proposals before us are dependent on addicted or heavily-indebted citizens. Slot machine proponents attempt to elude charges of exploitation by pleading it is a "voluntary" act, hiding under the cloak of "freedom." But by definition, someone who is an addict or someone who is in deep financial debt, is not free.

In a country where everyone is considered equal, where all blood is royal, how can the state actively promote a product that renders some of our fellow citizens as expendable?

One of America's most sacred founding principles was "no taxation without representation" and it's time the principle of "no taxation by exploitation" was added right beneath it.

1. Winner Takes All By Christina Binkley, 2008. Pg. 184

2. Testimony delivered by MIT Professor Dr. Natasha Schüll to the Massachusetts Legislature, October 31, 2007

3. Nova Scotia Gambling Prevalence Study, Office of Health Promotion, June 2004. Page XI

4. Winner Takes All By Christina Binkley, 2008. Pg. 184

5. "When Gambling Gets Out of Control" Kalamazoo Gazette by Linda Mah September 9, 2008

6. Dr. Hans Breiter, Massachusetts General Hospital. Director, Motivational and Emotional Neuroscience Center.
Video interview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNL3FzU_glU

7. "Lottery Taxes Divert Income from Retirement Savings" The Tax Foundation, Alicia Hansen and Gerald Prante January 19, 2006

8. Taylor Branch, StopPredatoryGambling.org National Conference, Sept. 28, 2008.