Problem Gambling and the Lottery


Lottery is a fixture in our society, with people spending upwards of $100 billion on tickets last year. States promote these games as ways to raise revenue, but they also entice people into spending money they don’t have and encourage unhealthy behavior.

The first recorded lottery games offering tickets for sale with prizes of cash were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, according to town records from Ghent, Utrecht and Bruges. These were public lotteries to raise funds for building walls and town fortifications, as well as for poor relief. But there were also private lotteries for the distribution of land, property and slaves in ancient times. The lottery’s history dates back centuries, and it’s one of the few activities that can boast an impressive record of longevity.

People gamble in lotteries for many reasons, including an inextricable urge to try their luck. In addition, people are drawn to the promise of instant riches dangled by billboards for Powerball and Mega Millions. Some experts have suggested that the fact that people feel a strong desire to win in lotteries is evidence of an inborn sense of fairness. It’s a form of “equitable redistribution” that has long been considered a valid replacement for taxes.

Some governments even offer tax breaks for lotteries, a practice that has been criticized as unjust because it can encourage gambling. But the fact is that gambling is far less costly to society than other vices like alcohol and tobacco, which are taxed in order to fund essential services. In addition, the ill effects of gambling are nowhere near as severe as those of alcohol and tobacco.

But there are real concerns about the effect that lotteries have on society, especially in the United States where the number of people suffering from problem gambling has been skyrocketing since the lottery was introduced in 1904. In 2010, the United States saw its highest level of lottery-related gambling problems ever with a total of 2.2 million adults reporting a gaming addiction. That’s up from 1.16 million in 2006.

A number of factors are involved in the growth of problem gambling, but one key factor is that there is a lack of treatment options for problem gamblers. Many states lack the resources to implement comprehensive programs, and the vast majority of people with a gambling addiction aren’t getting help. In fact, the prevalence of problem gambling has been linked to declining rates of addiction treatment and increased suicide rates.

Lottery participants have a false sense of how they should play the game. Some have quote-unquote systems that are totally irrational, such as selecting lucky numbers or purchasing tickets in a particular store or at a certain time of day. Others assume that they will get a lump sum payment when they win, but winnings are usually paid out in an annual annuity, and those payments are subject to income taxes, so winners will ultimately receive much less than advertised jackpots.