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Who's Afraid of Online Gambling?

By Steve Chapman

In the last few decades, legal gambling has gone from being the exception to being the norm. Once upon a time, you had to look hard and travel far to find it. Nowadays, if you chance to venture out the front door, odds are good it will find you.

It's available through lotteries, casinos and racetracks across the country. It's allowed in some form in every state except Utah and Hawaii. It's even a mainstay on ESPN, where poker is considered a spectator sport.

In this day and age, being indicted for running a gambling operation may sound as unlikely as getting busted for fornication. But it happened the other day to David Carruthers, chief executive of BetOnSports, a British corporation listed on the London Stock Exchange. What was his crime? Not running the office Super Bowl pool, but arranging for people to bet in a venue where it is forbidden: the Internet.

In case existing laws aren't enough, Congress may place Internet gambling even farther beyond the pale, in an attempt to stamp out a business that takes in some $6 billion a year from Americans. This month, the House of Representatives approved a bill outlawing the use of credit cards and other electronic payments for online betting.

Well, some forms of online betting. Interstate wagers on horse races would be allowed. So would some online lotteries run by state governments.

In the old days, the law almost universally took the view that all forms of gambling were evil and destructive. We have progressed. Now the House takes the view that one form of gambling is evil and destructive.

Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, says, "Internet gambling's characteristics are unique: Online players can gamble 24 hours a day from home; children may play without sufficient age verification; and betting with a credit card can undercut a player's perception of the value of cash, leading to gambling addiction, bankruptcy and crime." University of Illinois business professor John Kindt warns, "You just click the mouse and lose your house."

Of course, similar warnings used to be issued about other types of gambling. But experience has shown that almost everyone is able to avoid these perils -- either by wagering in moderation or by abstaining altogether. A study by Harvard Medical School's Division on Addictions found that only 1.6 percent of adults are likely to develop a compulsion, making gambling far less addictive than drugs, cigarettes or alcohol.

The bulk of the evidence indicates that legalizing casinos doesn't cause crime. You can go bankrupt by making bad bets at the roulette wheel or the racetrack, but you can also attain poverty by speculating in stocks or real estate.

Are gamblers more likely to self-destruct from the home office than at Caesars Palace, surrounded by high rollers, alluring hostesses and dazzling decor? Not likely. As Chapman University law professor Tom Bell has noted, critics of casinos "fault them for luring consumers into windowless caverns far from the real world, with gambling traps at every turn and free-flowing booze." You would think those critics would welcome an option that lets people bet without venturing into dens of vice.

As for a house-losing mouse click, not many people have credit-card limits high enough to permit it, even if they were so reckless. Most Americans who gamble keep their wagers within the limits of affordability. Being able to play online is not going to suddenly drive them insane with greed.

The casino industry argues that it's wiser to place Internet betting under government supervision than to drive it underground where consumers have little protection. David Carruthers, before his arrest, took pride in policies his company had implemented to bar minors and compulsive gamblers, and said regulation would strengthen those controls.

MGM Mirage opened an offshore operation "to prove that online casino gaming could be implemented with the same high standards of regulatory integrity as land-based operations," and says it succeeded "in demonstrating a working model that provided the proper checks for jurisdictional control, age verification and the necessary security and responsible gaming measures."

Though these claims can't be taken on faith, they show the industry is open to coupling online access with measures designed to prevent abuses. The House, however, insists the only protection is prohibition.

But gambling is now part of the national landscape, and so is the Internet. Individually, we don't fear either one. Why should a combination of the two be so scary?

schapman@tribune.com

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate


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