Gambling

The public is spending pounds 4.7bn a year on the National Lottery, and no one really understands where the money is coming from, where it is going, or what its impact is. It is good news that Tony Blair's government is now taking a fresh look at "the people's lottery".

As it happens, a new focus on gambling, by way of a federal commission, is gripping the United States. Already there has been a lot of sniping and snarling by rival forces, in setting up this investigation. The anti- gambling coalition sees the commission as a chance to roll back the tide of commercial gambling which has swept the country; on the other side, the gaming industry is determined to protect its interests and thwart proposals for new taxes. The commission is supposed to be exploratory only, rather than prescribing a cure-all. But the debate over the two- year study, for and against gambling, is bound to be tense.

The obvious risk is that instead of shedding light on the social and economic repercussions of gambling, the commission will grind itself down in "semantic prestidigitation" (to borrow Ms Ann Widdecombe's fine phrase). The leader of the anti-gambling forces is Rev Thomas Grey, a Methodist minister from Illinois, who sees the campaign as a kind of rerun of the Vietnam war, in which he served. The industry's spokesman, on a big salary, is Frank Fahrenkopf, a former Republican National committee chairman and Nevada lawyer. The commission itself is nicely balanced: two members are Christian activists, one member is a casino bigshot and another a gaming regulator, one is a union leader and another a businessman; the others are supposed to hold neutral views.

The drama will come in public hearings across the country, in which opponents of gambling (so the industry fears) will be able to sound off and vent their prejudices at length. "The main purpose," according to congressman Frank Wolf, a noted critic of gambling who pushed for the commission, "is to put attention on gambling and get information out." If that happens, the gaming industry stands to gain far more than than it will lose, in improving public understanding of its role. Casinos are legal in 22 states, 36 states have lotteries, and the public wagers (legally) more than $550bn a year.

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