National Study of  The American Gambling Issues

Today the vast majority of Americans either gamble recreationally and experience no measurable side effects related to their gambling, or they choose not to gamble at all. Regrettably, some of them gamble in ways that harm themselves, their families, and their communities. This Commission’s research suggests that 86 percent of Americans report having gambled at least once during their lives. Sixty-eight percent of Americans report having gambled at least once in the past year.1 In 1998, people gambling in this country lost $50 billion in legal wagering, a figure that has increased every year for over two decades, and often at double-digit rates. And there is no end in sight: Every prediction that the gambling market was becoming saturated has proven to be premature.


The most salient fact about gambling in America-and the impetus for the creation of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC)-is that over the past 25 years, the United States has been transformed from a nation in which legalized gambling was a limited and a relatively rare phenomenon into one in which such activity is common and growing. (See Figure 1-1.) Today, all but two states have some form of legalized gambling.2 Pari-mutuel racetracks and betting are the most widespread form and are now legal in over 40 states; lotteries have been established in 37 states and the District of Columbia, with more states poised to follow; Indian casinos operate in every region of the country. Non-Indian high roller casinos have expanded from Nevada and Atlantic City to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Midwest riverboats, and 1 National Opinion Research Center, Gambling Impact and Behavior Study, Report to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, April 1, 1999, p. 6. 2 Hawaii and Utah have no legal gambling; pari-mutuel horse racing is legal in Tennessee, but no racetracks are currently operating there. western mining towns. As gambling sites proliferate on the Internet and telephone gambling is legalized in more states, an increasingly large fraction of the public can place a bet without ever leaving home at all. Universally available, “round-the-clock” gambling may soon be a reality. Once exotic, gambling has quickly taken its place in mainstream culture: Televised megabucks drawings; senior citizens’ day-trips to nearby casinos; and the transformation of Las Vegas into family friendly theme resorts, in which gambling is but one of a menu of attractions, have become familiar backdrops to daily life.


This massive and rapid transformation clearly has had significant economic and social impacts on individuals, communities, and on the United States as a whole. But what are they? And is the net impact positive or negative? Not surprisingly, the spread of legalized gambling has spawned a range of public debates, infused with the drama of contests between great interests and sharpened by a visceral emotional intensity. Typically, proponents of gambling choose to stress the potential economic benefits that the gambling industry can produce, such as jobs, investment, economic development, and enhanced tax revenues; whereas opponents underline the possible social costs, such as pathological gambling, crime, and other maladies.
Many of the positive economic impacts are in fact easy to point to if not always to quantify: Sleepy backwaters have become metropolises almost overnight; skyscrapers rise on the beaches at once-fading tourist areas; legions of employees testify to the hope and opportunities that the casinos have brought them and their families; some Indian nations have leapt from prolonged neglect and deprivation to sudden abundance. Gambling has not just made the desert bloom in Las Vegas but has made it the fastest growing city in the United States.