Leading Article: A Jag, a BMW and an addiction

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Yesterday the two contrasting sides of a new British institution were on display. In Berkshire, Shaun Renaud and partner were contemplating life as Britain's latest lottery millionaires. Meanwhile, on Merseyside, the family of Tim O'Brien, lottery loser, was coming to terms with his tragic suicide. He had missed out on a £2m pay-off, having forgotten to renew his winning numbers. This coincidence of stories has caused some big questions to be asked: what effect is the lottery having on us? Is there anything we can or should do about it?

There are, of course, good reasons to like the lottery. Throughout the country, millions of people are participating in the draw. Post Offices in pretty hamlets are packed out with ticket buyers, swapping lottery gossip and fantasies. Like the FA Cup Final, the Derby or a coronation, the lottery provides a nationally shared moment, a point of mutual contact. And it offers hope. Mr Renaud is quoted as saying: "That's the magic of the lottery. I hated my job, but I always had the lottery to look forward to." Now he is going to buy a new house, a Jag (his), a BMW (hers) and an Espace (theirs). Even better, much of the money, paid over in hope by rosy- cheeked citizens, will go to good works, compounding this picture of contentedness.

Now contemplate a different series of images. In an inner city corner shop, impoverished pensioners and despairing dads queue to put money they cannot afford into a competition that (statistically) they cannot win. Like Jack in the story, they hand their livelihoods over for a handful of beans - except there will be no beanstalk. Constant fantasising about how vast sums of unearned dosh would transform their lives corrodes the ability to live in the present. And many are becoming gamblers for the first time. Unlike betting on the horse or hound, or filling in the pools, expertise confers no advantage in the lottery - all clearly stand an equal chance. As a result many who never enter a betting shop or return a slip to Littlewoods are being drawn into gambling - and gambling is addictive.

Both these pictures are essentially true. Poorer people are paying out disproportionately in the hope of a win they will never experience. And they are enjoying doing it. Some are becoming hooked, others take it in their stride. Democracy allows people to make their own decisions about the balance of advantage. Furthermore, there is nothing now to be done about it. In an incredibly short period of time the lottery has become a national institution that cannot be uninvented.

Nevertheless, here is a prediction. In 15 years or so the Chief Medical Officer will issue a report detailing the damage done by excessive gambling on the lottery. This report will make one or all of the following recommendations: that all tickets carry a health warning, that all advertising makes clear just how preposterous the odds are and that the lottery itself should fund a national health education campaign by Gambler's Anonymous. Perhaps we shouldn't wait.