We are past debating the merits of gambling in Pennsylvania. The passage of our gaming law in early July means that soon there will be slot machines at racetracks and in Philadelphia. That's a definite. We can take steps now, however, to make our gambling establishments stand apart from those in other states.
My proposal is to establish eight safeguards that would protect the gambling public and the industry that is expected to produce an estimated $1 billion in revenue to be used for cutting taxes, supporting education, strengthening an ailing horse-racing industry, and pumping up tourism. This is what I'd do:
1. Stop calling gambling entertainment; it's an investment. You don't see entertainers singing, tap dancing, or telling jokes in front of slot machines, so there's no entertainment. And those plastic reward cards that the casinos and racinos track their customers with, let's just call them investment cards. To prevent people from getting in over their heads financially, we should make those investment cards customers' license to gamble. Before establishments issue these "licenses," they should pull customers' credit reports. People who are in bankruptcy or foreclosure or are late with child-support payments should not be gambling.
2. Stop the comps. Many people get their casino/racino addiction from chasing the comps more than from actual gambling. Take away the free meals and other perks, and the addiction stops breeding.
3. Don't provide credit. What other industry gives out loans and doesn't charge interest? No-interest loans lure people into spending money they don't have.
4. Eliminate casino chips and coinless slot machines. Let's see how much money is wagered if chips are taken away. Chips and coinless slot machines just keep people gambling, less aware of what they're really spending. Customers might cash out if they see their actual winnings.
5. No 24/7 operations. When casinos first opened in Atlantic City, it was believed that compulsive gamblers needed time to step back from the tables. Casinos opened at 10 a.m. and closed at 4 a.m. on weekdays, 6 a.m. on weekends and holidays. By closing for a few hours, Atlantic City officials thought they were avoiding the wide-open atmosphere of Las Vegas, where continuous gambling is permitted. Today, Atlantic City's casinos are open 24/7. Ours shouldn't be.
6. Don't serve free alcoholic beverages. Free drinks encourage reckless behavior. Imagine what would happen if free liquor were served by bankers, insurance agents, mortgage brokers and stockbrokers.
7. Don't have ATMs on the premises. This will curb some of the impulse spending. At many casinos, you can see more people lined up at ATMs than at cashiers' cages.
8. Issue monthly statements. Reward cards allow casinos and racinos to track the amount of money and time spent gambling. This is the information that is used to determine the value of comps given out. Since this kind of information already is being gathered, monthly statements can be produced. This way, people bordering on compulsive gambling would be able to see the costs of their "entertainment" - and their spouses would have access to the information, too.
Maybe my first seven safeguards don't have a chance, but issuing monthly statements is doable. Let's give it a chance.
Some of us may not be willing to change our habits, but we need to consider the next generation of gamblers. Our children and grandchildren, raised on the fast pace, bright lights and intoxicating music of electronic games, need to be made aware of what's at stake. We don't want them to fall prey to a gaming industry that can seduce the common sense from the unwary.