By Michael Geer

My youngest son was over at our house the other day and started telling me how his iPhone was pushing gambling. Well, not his phone exactly, and it’s not just him. The now-legal sports betting and online casino apps and advertising are putting high-stakes gambling (or “gaming,” as the industry likes to call it) right in our faces through our smartphones, providing special enticements and incentives to join in the “fun.” For many, it’s too hard to resist, and for some, it leads to devastating addiction, financial ruin, and family dissolution.

New reports reveal calls to a problem gambling hotline in PA have tripled in the last four years, according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania.

Legalized casino gambling first got its foot in Pennsylvania’s door twenty years ago with the passage of Act 71, which established the “Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board” and set up a framework for a limited number of slot machines to be placed at the four horse-racing-tracks in our state – Philadelphia Park, Pocono Downs, Penn National (near Hershey) and The Meadows (south of Pittsburgh).

Let’s just say that the words “control” and “limited” haven’t lived up to their definitions in the case of Pennsylvania gambling since that day.

Then-Gov. Ed Rendell made passing slots at the race tracks one of his highest priorities, twice holding the budget hostage to his proposal and claiming that it was necessary to save the “critical” horse racing “industry” here in Pennsylvania. I don’t think horse racing has ever been called a “critical industry” before or since. But the sales job was on, and Gov. Rendell sweetened the pot by promising that significant property tax relief would come from the windfall generated by those slot machines. It is hard to find evidence that relief happened in any sizable way since then.

And so, after a lengthy floor debate at our State Capitol late into the night of Independence Day (July 4, 2004), with lots of arm twisting and deals being struck, Rendell’s proposal made it across the finish line by a nose. And, sadly, any independence we previously had from the gambling industry and its lobbyists was lost.

For more than a decade up to that point, Pennsylvania Family Institute helped lead a coalition that successfully resisted the expansion of gambling in our state, understanding the risks that come with legalized casino gambling. This ad below – part of a flier we developed and sent out across the state in 2004 – indicated the damage to individuals and families that would result if we crossed that line: hundreds of thousands of addicted and problem gamblers. Today’s statistics have proven that prediction to be true.

What we also predicted, and has also come true, was that the government would become addicted to gambling as well. In speeches and television debates, I warned that once this camel’s nose was in the tent, our lawmakers, enamored by additional money to spend, would look for new ways to expand gambling despite the actual cost to Pennsylvanians and their families. And that’s exactly what happened – and continues to this day. This “I told you so” provides little solace, but it does provide warnings for the future.

Today it’s hard to contemplate forms of gambling not legal in Pennsylvania. Since 2004, we have seen new laws allowing for a big expansion of the lottery, including very addictive Keno and other quick-result games; online poker, sports betting, fantasy sports, more than 18 casinos and mini-casinos scattered throughout the state. Plus there are the video gambling terminals at some truckstops and convenience stores  – and ubiquitous advertising that makes avoiding the lure even more challenging.

According to Penn State University’s 2022 Online Gambling Report, 11% of adults in Pennsylvania have engaged in online gambling, and over one-third (36.7%) of online gamblers report at least one gambling problem. That amounts to over 400,000 adults in PA with a gambling problem, a low estimate considering this only accounts for online gamblers.

With all this expansion, Pennsylvania has jumped to the head of the pack – now second only to Nevada (home of Las Vegas) – in the dollars lost by individuals in legalized casino-style gambling. In 2022, that Pennsylvania total was $5.343 billion. And unlike Las Vegas, which features “destination gambling” aimed at out-of-state tourist dollars, a large portion of that $5-plus billion brought in here comes from your fellow citizens – many of whom can ill afford to lose it. Money that would have gone to someone’s retirement… or college fund… or mortgage payment… or to buy clothes or put food on the table for the children. 

Looking back twenty years later, at the very least this is a cautionary tale if not a downright tragedy. And yet, efforts to feed the addiction continue, with Gov. Josh Shapiro this month as part of his budget proposing to legalize, tax, and regulate so-called “skill games” – which are slot-machine type devices that supposedly require player skill rather than simple chance like slots.  

His budget also calls for legalizing the commercial retail sale of marijuana products. These high-potency products, including flavored vapes, edibles, and gummies, are shown to be addictive and dangerous to our citizens and costly to society. Just as with gambling, any promises of “limits” would soon be abandoned as we’ve seen in Colorado, where there are more pot shops than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined.

And one can confidently predict it would also be addictive to government officials, who would count on expanding tax revenue from pot sales – spurring expansion of advertising, availability, and perhaps, as has happened in other states, legalization of other dangerous drugs.  

Let’s not let that happen. 

Before Pennsylvania opened the gates to this horrible expansion of gambling twenty years ago, I testified before the PA House State Government Committee, where I stated, in part:

Is the harm or risk of harm from casino-style gambling, including video slot machines at race tracks, outweighed by the social good that will result? Is the collateral damage to families and society worth the promised revenue? We contend that it clearly is not. 

I really don’t like to say “I told you so” on issues of such magnitude.  Take action today against the legalization of marijuana.