Monday, November 21, 2011

Massachusetts' unwinnable gamble

It is ironic how, just a few days following the startling (?) confirmation by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded research that an ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure, the Massachusetts legislature with reckless abandon ushered in yet another mechanism for the erosion of public health: legalized gambling. Really, I have nothing against a little gambling. The issue is that this legislative move does not just open the door to a trickle of small local gambling operations. No, what it does is turn the crank to open a fire hose of "big box" gambling establishments descending upon our state. And it is not just anywhere in the state: it is in the Western part, far removed from the back yards of the legislators who are salivating over the projected licensing and tax revenues.

But I don't want to get into the NIMBY aspect of this misguided bill. I would rather stick to the real issue: selling us out to raise short-term revenue. The move projects 15,000 new jobs (menial with no benefits mostly), $40 million annually in tax income, on top of $85 million licensing fees from each of the three casinos, all this in addition to construction investment and the like. Already the bill allocates $50 million to overhauling healthcare reimbursements in the state. As well, there is a $25 million provision to shore up research into and prevention of problem gambling. And even people who are in staunch opposition to legalizing gambling seem appeased by this provision, which they say makes it the best bill of its kind. But we still have to ask, if prevention is better than cure, why settle for good mitigation strategies when we have the best prevention available to us already: keep casinos out!

Some of you will probably say that I am naive. After all, reason fades when we are talking about such big bucks for the state coffers. Well, just because this kind of a trade-off is something we have come to expect from our politicians does not mean that we should tolerate it. Others will bring up the old free will argument. No, I am not against people exercising their personal decision making, but haven't you read "Nudge?" We are all deeply flawed human beings, and in the face of temptation we fail miserably! And since we know that casinos increase the risk of problem gambling, why not just steer clear of them altogether? This is simply not a winnable gamble.

I hope that some of you are hearing echoes of the food-obesity debate. We deem it an individual rather than a societal problem, and look how well we have done mitigating the obesity epidemic! There is no rocket science here, and it is disingenuous to say that we do not understand the causes of obesity. Human physiology has not changed over a couple of generations, no. What has changed is our constant access to high-calorie cheap concoctions that pass for food; what has changed is our limited access to physical activity; and what has changed is the degree to which we as a society are willing to sign on to corporate and political propaganda designed to get votes and make money at the expense of our health.

So, am I shocked that this casino bill is likely to become law? Not at all. Am I surprised that the public is allowing this to happen in a pathetic perversion of personal freedom? Of course not. Am I going to shut up about what a mistake this is? You bet I am not. And in a decade I will say "I told you so." But I am sure that then, not unlike now, no one will be listening.              


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  2. I will be listening! This has bothered me from the start. I do not agree with 'big brother' telling me what to do, but that doesn't mean they have to throw it in my face either. What you mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg for problems out here in western MA. Think of the logistics of driving and police in areas like Holyoke where the police system is already taxed beyond their capacity. I think we will see just how awful these casinos are going to be, worse than we can imagine with very little benefit to the community.