Do Government Lotteries Promote Gambling?


Lotteries are government-sponsored games of chance in which numbers or symbols are drawn to determine a prize. They are popular as a form of entertainment and many state lotteries benefit charitable causes. Nevertheless, they raise important questions about the extent to which governments promote gambling. Some critics argue that lottery promotion undermines governmental efforts to reduce compulsive and problem gambling, while others point to the fact that lottery proceeds are a useful source of revenue for states. Despite these concerns, most state governments continue to establish and operate lotteries.

The history of lotteries goes back to ancient times. Archaeological evidence suggests that people have used lotteries for centuries to determine the distribution of property, slaves and even land. In the sixteenth century, King Francis I of France attempted to hold a lottery in order to raise funds for his campaigns. While the attempt was unsuccessful, private lotteries continued to grow in popularity in Europe and America. They were used by businessmen as a way to sell products or property for more money than they could get through a regular sale. In addition, the lottery was also an excellent tool for collecting “voluntary taxes.” The money collected by the state from these tickets was then loaned to the government at interest-free rates.

In the early days of the United States, state lotteries were primarily designed to raise capital for public works projects. In 1832, the Boston Mercantile Journal reported that there were 420 different lotteries in operation. By the late nineteenth century, lottery revenues were helping to build many American colleges. In addition, the lottery was a popular alternative to paying income tax.

Today, state lotteries have evolved into complex operations. Most state lottery officials are unable to control the overall direction of their industry, which is often driven by consumer demand, market forces and state legislative incentives. As a result, many lottery officials have adopted the perspective that they are merely responsible for providing consumers with a game of chance and are not necessarily promoting gambling.

A primary message that state lotteries rely on to gain and retain broad public support is that the revenue they generate is beneficial to the state’s fiscal health. This argument is particularly persuasive in states facing fiscal stress. However, recent studies indicate that state lotteries have gained broad public approval even in states with healthy financial conditions.

The other major message that lotteries rely on is to convince consumers that playing the lottery is an experience that provides non-monetary benefits. This is a powerful message, as it obscures the regressivity of the lottery and promotes gambling behavior that is not in the best interests of consumers. For example, lottery ads often mention that playing the lottery is fun and encourage consumers to develop quote-unquote systems for buying tickets (such as purchasing multiple entries at lucky stores and purchasing tickets at certain times of day). This type of thinking is flawed and misguided. The truth is that winning the lottery requires a substantial investment of time and money.