One on One: The lottery – still bad for North Carolina

Published 8:00 am Monday, December 19, 2022

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By D.G. Martin

I was firmly opposed to the state of North Carolina getting into the lottery business back in 2005.

There were many reasons. What worried me most was that the government, which should be in the business of encouraging its citizens to make good financial choices, would instead be encouraging them to throw their money to the winds to a state-owned lottery,

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The government would be selling a bill of goods to its people.

How were our legislators persuaded to get into a business that harmed its people?

Now, I am beginning to remember.

Our leaders promised all kinds of things to get the votes they needed. There would be strict restrictions on advertising. Places for lottery sales would be limited. Programs to discourage addiction to gambling would be a part of the lottery’s responsibility. All that and other things to discourage participation would be put in place. Such restrictions were promised knowing that as soon as the lottery was in place, those provisions could be quietly eliminated.

On March 30, 2006, the first lottery scratch-off tickets went on sale. Two months later Powerball was offered, beginning an escalation of enticing prizes that continues today.

For instance, early on, according to the lottery, “Gradual product roll-outs allowed people unfamiliar with the lottery to learn how to play and try new games.”

“On Super Bowl Sunday in February 2016, the lottery joined the multistate game Lucky for Life. While some players enjoy the chance to win big top prizes or play for jackpots that grow larger, the unique top prize of $1,000 A Day for Life in the game offers the appeal of a prize that lasts a lifetime.”

The lottery boasted, “It is the only US lottery to achieve both growth in sales and growth in earnings every year during its first 10 years.”

Is there a downside for the lottery’s success in achieving so much participation?

If so, every state in the nation except for five shares the challenges.

The national situation was described in Oct. 24 issue of The New Yorker in an article by Kathryn Schulz. It was titled “What We’ve Lost Playing the Lottery: The games are a bonanza for the companies that states hire to administer them. But what about the rest of us?” Her article was based in part on a new book, “For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America,” by historian Jonathan D. Cohen.

After describing some of the multiple games offered in convenience stores, such as Show Me $10,000!, $100,000 Lucky, Money Explosion, Cash Is King, Blazing Hot Cash, Big Cash Riches, Schulz writes, “The strangest of the many strange things about these tickets is that, unlike other convenience-store staples – Utz potato chips, Entenmann’s cinnamon-swirl buns, $1.98 bottles of wine – they are brought to you by your state government.”

These games, she writes “are, like state parks and driver’s licenses, a government service.”

Schultz writes, “At my local store, some customers snap up entire rolls – at a minimum, three hundred dollars’ worth of tickets – and others show up in the morning, play until they win something, then come back in the evening and do it again. All of this, repeated every day at grocery stores and liquor stores and mini-marts across the country, renders the lottery a ninety-one-billion-dollar business.”

Cohen writes, “Americans spend more on lottery tickets every year than on cigarettes, coffee, or smartphones, and they spend more on lottery tickets annually than on video streaming services, concert tickets, books, and movie tickets combined.”

So, lottery tickets could be viewed as either “a benign form of entertainment or a dangerous addiction.”

Either way, the question remains, according to Cohen, whether governments charged with promoting the general welfare should be in the business of producing lottery tickets, publicizing them and profiting from them.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.