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Jewish World Review /June 22, 1998 /29 Sivan, 5758

Don Feder

Don Feder Big tobacco? What about big casinos?

WHEN THE SENATE KILLED the tobacco bill last week, opponents raged. "Joe Camel wins and our kids lose," sputtered Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "Kids deserve our protection and we will continue to fight for it," promised Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Attacking R.J. Reynolds is politically safe. But there is another addictive danger to the young that has gone largely unnoticed -- until now.

On June 16, The New York Times ran a front-page story on youth gambling, which noted "a growing concern among experts on compulsive gambling about the number of youth who -- confronted with state lotteries, the growth of family oriented casinos and sometimes lax enforcement of wagering laws -- gamble at an earlier and earlier age and gamble excessively."

It's hard to miss the similarities between tobacco companies and gambling interests. Both make fortunes from human misery. Each pushes an addiction that, if it isn't fatal, often diminishes the quality of life.

Both buy political cover with lavish campaign contributions. In the first quarter of this year, casino owners joined tobacco and alcohol industries as the major soft-money donors.

And both tobacco and gambling concerns frequently pitch their product to the young, while piously denying the obvious.

The comparison isn't perfect. Bankruptcies haven't been directly tied to the nicotine habit. Smokers don't pawn their possessions, steal, embezzle and commit insurance fraud to buy their next pack. Researchers have yet to establish a link between smoking and suicide or spousal abuse.

There are no warning labels on lottery tickets.

A study by Louisiana State University shows that one in seven 18- to 21-year-olds in the state is a problem or a pathological gambler. Adolescents are more than twice as likely as adults to develop a gambling habit.

Tom Grey of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling notes that the average high-rolling teen loses $660 a month -- a staggering sum for individuals earning the minimum wage.

The gap between paycheck and losses at the tables is often bridged by crime.

The Times piece describes a 27-year-old Philadelphia man who's a recovering gambling addict. All it took to turn him around were two prison terms for writing bad checks and credit-card fraud -- and an attempted suicide.

"By the time I was 17," says the man identified as Michael, "my parents had to put a lock on everything in the house. ... If I could take 30 towels out of the linen closet, I would sell them for $10 and place a bet."

Like Cancer merchants, casinos know that their future lies in hooking the young. Tobacco companies offer merchandise with adolescent appeal (baseball caps, backpacks).

The gambling industry is equally audatious. In Kansas City last year, employees of one of the city's floating casinos attended a career day at a local elementary school and distributed logo T-shirts to fourth- and fifth-graders. Kids came home singing the casino's theme song.

A Baton Rouge riverboat casino donated 110 decks of cards (one for each senior) to the mock "casino area" at a local high school's graduation party.

Experts decry the trend toward creating "family-oriented" entertainment complexes around casinos. Parents feel less guilty about dragging the kids there, and future customers are seduced at a tender age.

In January, the Las Vegas Hilton unveiled its $70-million "Star Trek: The Experience" ride (geared to 40-year-olds?). Teens waited hours for the attraction. The line stretched through a gaming area, and hundreds of kids used the opportunity to play the slot machines.

"Market-savvy managers are grooming the next generation," says Marvin Roffman, a Philadelphia-based gambling analyst.

Last week, our moralist in chief was grandstanding again. "I want the tobacco lobby and its allies on Capitol Hill to know that from my point of view this battle is far from over," Clinton declaimed.

The fight against the gambling lobby and its political minions has only begun. Regrettably, there isn't the same public awareness of the addictive nature of gambling and the danger it poses, particularly to the young. But it's coming.

Meanwhile, Clinton, who wouldn't be caught dead taking tobacco money, has no qualms about pocketing six-figure checks drawn on accounts in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, as he did after playing golf with Mirage owner Steve Wynn in 1996.

Like the GOP, the White House has been cut in for a piece of the action and is betting on the house.


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6/2/98: Goldwater did conservatives more harm than good
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5/13/98: Hillary knows what's best for everyone
5/11/98: To honor her would not be honorable
5/6/98: Conservative chasm: pragmatism vs. worship of marketplace
5/4/98: Anglo-saxon me
4/29/98: Needle exchange programs are assisted-suicide
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4/20/98: Corporate execs deliver body parts to Beijing
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3/30/98: Africa's leaders should apologize
3/25/98: GOP shouldn't look to media for advice
3/22/98: You should care about Clinton's 'private life'
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1/19/98: Commission tackles America's fastest-growing addiction, gambling
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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.