Once, we sought salvation in religion. Now, 10 million prayers are raised for a National Lottery jackpot win - and when that hope is dashed, a man like Tim O'Brien takes his life ... Have we all gone lottery mad?

One of the nation's shabbiest and longest running cover-ups was exposed to the public gaze last week. The owners of high-street betting shops were permitted to remove the blinds and screens concealing the interiors of their premises, meaning that, for the first time, the more curious of Britain's non-betting passers-by can now glimpse what is going on inside.

This is an attempt to make the betting shop business, and therefore the gambling industry, more accessible and consumer friendly, a means to attract yet more customers, including women, to a business that last year provided Kenneth Clarke with more than pounds 1.1bn in taxes.

Gambling has garbed itself in socio-political haute couture. Tories regard it as a manifestation of self-help, and that's a very Tory thing, particularly at a time when central government is slashing back public spending. So we find parent-teacher associations resorting to prize draws in order to buy textbooks. We read about Friends of the Hospital bailing out the new trusts by running lotteries to buy scanners. Childrenare sent to the United States to have operations on the proceeds of raffles.

We casually push money into more than 270,000 slot machines, too, a rise of nearly 50,000 in five years.We believe in gambling. It's fun, it helps to educate our kids, it saves lives, iteven bolsters the church organ fund.

There is no greater example of the good-cause gamble than the National Lottery; nor does a clearer picture exist of the effects of mass delusion, for if there is one certainty about the lottery (besides the money, Camelot is literally minting for itself) it is this: 10 million Britons who didn't gamble before the lottery have now been sucked in. Gamblers Anonymous reports that increasing numbers of women have sought help because they are hooked.

There is a kind of fin desicle madness about, a rush to relieve ourselves of our money.Despite economic indicators saying otherwise, there is no perceived feeling that things are improving. Everything is short term, so what the hell, let's gamble, because gambling is a way of reaching Heaven without having to go through the process of dying. What's more, you can do it more than once.

Ours is not the first era to be seduced by such a siren. Towards the end of the 18th century, there was an extraordinary outbreak of speculation mania and gambling fever.There were even sporting scandals that mirror our own today. One of the main reasons for codifying the laws of cricket was to make sure that the bets laid on the outcome of each innings were paid. There were more than 40 illegal gaming clubs in London with a combined turnover of pounds 7m (pounds 175m today). There was lottery fever too - the draws, made by picking tickets out of a revolving drum, were often held in the Guildhall and were eagerly anticipated. Many a solid City fortune was built by the dubious means of an 18th-century gamble, none more so than that of Britain's richest family, the Westminsters, who won Mayfair in a card game.

In the US, the expansion of gambling, seen by many state governors as a quick-fix way of balancing budgets, has met fierce opposition. Florida has turned against casinos, West Virginia vetoed river boat casinos and gambling legislation has been blocked in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming. Opposition is not confined to bible bashing Moral Majority groups, either. Anti-gamblers have argued that "pathological gamblers" have contributed to an increase in crime. In Deadwood, South Dakota, which legalised gambling in 1989, child abuse cases have risen by 42 per cent, felonies by 50 per cent. A study at the University of Illinois concluded that were gambling to be brought to Chicago, the criminal justice bill would soar by more than $1bn.

In this country, the last great strike against gambling came as far back as 1825 when the last state lottery in this country was abolished through the efforts of the anti-slave trade reformer William Wilberforce. That was at a time when the Church Muscular sought to protect society from perceived evils. Today the Church is part of the gambling world - it speculated on the property market and lost; its opposition to this summer's introduction of Sunday betting shop opening was feeble.

In the absence of a Wilberforce, perhaps every race card, betting slip, gaming table, slot machine, share certificate, pools form and lottery ticket in the country should have printed on it a government health warning. Though a more appropriate wording might be, "Gambling Damages The Soul, The Intellect and The Pocket".