So much misinformation about gambling is put about - by opponents and supporters alike - that an independent analysis is badly needed. In the United States, the new National Gambling Commission has started off as a ridiculous kind of circus for extremists to parade their highly coloured prejudices. In Britain, everything seems to be done piecemeal, with no coherent judgement of gambling policy overall.

So a new collection of studies from an international conference on gambling as an issue of public policy - covering gambling in an economic perspective, as entertainment, in its social impact, and as a cultural phenomenon - is welcome. Gambling is a difficult subject because it is very hard to define exactly what it is. I recognise that my own formula, "Gambling is good for you", is not quite sufficient as an explanation.

In his introduction, entitled "Understanding Gambling", Professor William Eadington, of the University of Nevada, Reno, sets the tone for the proceedings as a whole (which cover 39 articles in 700 pages). Commercial gaming has suddenly become an industry that has a profound impact on society at large. "The important participants in this transformation are the consumers of gambling services, - the gamblers, the punters - who form the raison d'etre for the activity," Eadington writes.

In Britain, in my experience, they are the very last group to be considered. The authorities are far more concerned with the suppliers of gambling services, such as the lottery organisation, casinos and bookmakers, who are there to exploit the economic opportunities offered, as indeed is the Treasury, which skims off the taxes.

In Britain the lottery is the starting point for all new discussion. It is well described, by the gaming consultant Nigel Kent-Lemon, as a cuckoo in the nest of the gaming industries. "The Government tried to fool us when introducing it by suggesting it wasn't a form of gambling - `more of a flutter, not really gambling at all'."

Isn't it about time, one might ask, that New Labour took another look at the lottery, in the context of gambling as a whole? The fundamental question, as Eadington puts it, is: "What is the appropriate role and presence of gambling in society?" To provide an answer, informed knowledge of the industry is needed. Let's hope that the Home Office, in its own sweet time, may get the debate moving.

`Gambling: Public Policies and the Social Sciences', edited by William R Eadington and Judy A Cornelius, Institute for the Study of Gambling, University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada 89557-0208, $69.95 plus $25 delivery.

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