Gambling for reckless stakes: Supporters of a heavily promoted national lottery are playing a dangerous game, argues Emanuel Moran

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THE NOTION that a sizeable amount of new money for good causes will become available through a national lottery has no sound basis in economics, or even in common sense. This is particularly so if such a lottery is set up within the present arrangements for gambling in Britain.

The one set of circumstances in which it might succeed is if it is heavily promoted, widely available and readily accessible. For this to happen, it would have to be treated differently from all other types of gambling, where positive encouragement is prohibited.

The reason for such control has been that, if taken to excess, gambling can harm the individual and the family and society as a whole. The Government appears to take the view that lotteries are the 'softest' form of gambling, and that a fairly relaxed regime of control for a national lottery is consistent with overall policy. This view is, at best, nave. Clearly, for such a lottery to succeed, it would have to be widely encouraged. It cannot be assumed that the dangers of excess which characterise all types of gambling would not exist here, too.

It is unwise to extrapolate from Britain's experience of small- scale schemes. Furthermore, the National Lottery Bill, due to have its second reading next week, makes a specific move to make small lotteries more attractive. Various sections of the gambling industry are now pressing for relaxation of controls so that they can compete effectively with the newcomer. The overall effect will clearly be to encourage further gambling, leading to excess.

Gambling, within limits, provides a pleasurable and harmless activity for many people. The existing lotteries enable such activity to benefit charitable, sporting and other good causes. In a national scheme, however, the gambling element would predominate over any element of charitable giving.

So far, the social impact has been seen as the most important consideration in forming public policy. At present, the Government has a supervisory function and extracts duty, but has no vested interest in the amount of gambling going on. This has been a matter for the industry itself. Those, including the exchequer, who benefit financially in some way are consulted, but do not form policy. Yet now the Department of National Heritage, which will aim to achieve the maximum return from the national lottery, is responsible for the legislation to authorise it and will take the lead in controlling it.

There is now more gambling of all types in Britain than anywhere else in Europe. There are adequate opportunities, therefore, for those who want to participate. Inciting people to gamble, even for good causes, will result in more of them doing so to excess. Many thousands of people and their families suffer the distress of debt and shortage, loss of jobs and friends, marital difficulties, divorce, crime, depression and attempted suicide. The effect of this on families, particularly children, is very destructive. For all these reasons, it would be most undesirable for the National Lottery Bill to become law.

The author is a consultant psychiatrist and chairman of the National Council on Gambling.