Question for Warren Tolman: Is Gambling Really Different from Tobacco?

Warren Tolman, who’s running against Maura Healey for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General, is promoting his candidacy by touting his defeat of Big Tobacco. Here he is promising to do to the National Rifle Association what he did in the 1990’s to the tobacco industry.

One of Tolman’s allies in the fight against Big Tobacco was law professor Richard Daynard, who at the time was the head of the Tobacco Liability Institute at Harvard. And one of their joint successes was the enactment of the state’s tobacco disclosure law in 1996, the first law of its kind in the nation. The law requires tobacco companies to measure the level of nicotine that is absorbed into the body after smoking a cigarette and also to disclose to the federal government the ingredients (including ammonia, cyanide and DDT) in its cigarette brands.

Tolman is understandably proud of his anti-smoking accomplishments. But here’s a little wrinkle. His one-time ally Richard Daynard believes that the addictive dangers that tobacco companies encourage by selling cigarettes are the same as those the gambling industry encourages by promoting casinos and slot machines. And because of these dangers, Daynard, who is now the head of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Judicial Court supporting the position the casino law should be presented to the voters for possible repeal. An excerpt from his indictment of the gambling industry (the entire brief is available here):

The harm caused by the tobacco industry’s products has been the archetype of a commercial threat to public health, and in considering the introduction of gambling industry casinos into Massachusetts, much can be learned from the object lesson of considering the tobacco industry as a disease vector. The predatory gambling industry shares much in common with the tobacco industry, and the People deserve the opportunity to exclude it from the Commonwealth. For example, casinos employ electronic gambling machines that are designed to addict their customers in a way that is similar to how the tobacco industry formulates its cigarettes to be addictive by manipulating their nicotine levels and other ingredients. Mirroring the tobacco industry’s strategy of creating scientific doubt where none truly exists, the casino industry has co-opted and corrupted scholarship on the effects of gambling through the use of front groups that funnel money to beholden scientists who are able to sanitize its origin. Borrowing another tobacco industry technique of shaping the debate around its products, by creating a misleading lexicon and using euphemisms, the casino industry has tried to influence debate, deflect criticism and mislead the public about its role as a disease vector. And finally, by employing personal and corporate responsibility rhetoric honed by the tobacco industry, the casino industry hopes to gain and maintain social acceptability and stave off litigation, regulation and citizen-driven activism.

Tolman does not support the repeal of the casino law. He believes he can regulate the industry to mitigate its harms. But his former ally Daynard’s position that the two industries present identical perils raises a couple questions: does Tolman disagree with him? If not, why is he willing to let another predator get a foot in the door?

Choose one: (a) Mohegan Sun, (b) Wynn Resorts, or (c) Neither of the Above

Gambling giant Mohegan Sun, which is hoping to win a license to build a casino near Boston, took out a full-page ad in the Globe last week touting itself as “a better choice for Massachusetts.” Better, that is, than Wynn Resorts, the other contestant. Both Mohegan Sun and Wynn Resorts would very much like you to forget that there is a third alternative: neither of the above.

Mohegan Sun’s claim to being “a better choice” than Wynn rests largely on its promised payoff to its host community, the city of Revere, and surrounding communities:

Through agreements with 12 communities, more than double our competitor in the region, and without the need for arbitration, Mohegan Sun will deliver more than $30 million in dedicated revenue each year and ensure maximum regional economic development from its development.

OK, so what’s rival Wynn promising for its host community, the city of Everett, and surrounding communities? Why, more than $30 million in dedicated revenue each year, the same as Mohegan Sun. There’s not really a lot to choose between the two on this score.

While we’re here in the weeds, let’s look at a few more numbers from the license applications. Mohegan Sun is projecting 8.1 million visits to its casino each year, which would generate between $850 million and $1 billion in gross gaming revenues. Of those 8.1 million visits, 87 percent would come from Massachusetts.

So, in exchange for “more than $30 million in dedicated revenue,” Mohegan Sun is planning to take between $740 million and $875 million out of our pockets. Not all of that money would be casino profit, of course. Some of it would pay operating costs and some would be shared with the state. But all of it would be lost by Massachusetts residents.

Which is one reason, as recent polls show, why more of us are taking another look at this whole idea. The premise of Mohegan Sun’s ad — that our only choice is which developer should get the nod, not whether to build a casino in the first place — reminds me of a joke that the mother of writer Annie Dillard was fond of playing with governmental requests for information. As Dillard wrote in An American Childhood, her mother, something of a comedian, regarded the instructions on bureaucratic forms as straight lines: “‘Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence?'” After some thought she wrote, “‘Force.'”

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[Note: the numbers cited in this post are available at links contained in an Amicus Brief in Abdow v. Secretary, the case pending before the Supreme Judicial Court that will decide whether the question of repealing the state’s gambling law will appear on the November ballot. The brief is here and well worth a read.]

Casinos’ Newest Ask: Let Us Take Food From the Mouths of Children

You’re probably thinking that I’ve got to be exaggerating with the headline on this post. But I’m not – here’s the story.

Some of the corporations pursuing casino licenses in the state say that in order for them to operate profitably here, some changes need to be made to our gambling law. One of the changes they want is to be relieved of the responsibility of checking to see if casino winners are on the list of persons who are delinquent in paying child support that they owe and to deduct those past due amounts before making payouts (this requirement also applies to past due taxes).

The public policy objective here — that obligations to family and community come first — is universally recognized: people who fail to pay child support can have their paychecks garnished, their personal property seized, their driver’s licenses suspended. The state lottery cannot make payouts without first checking for these unsatisfied debts.

But the casinos are of the view that they should not have to play by the same rules requiring them to deduct past due child support from a gambler’s winnings. And — the Gaming Commission agrees with them (a pause here to note that a poll released yesterday shows public confidence in the Gaming Commission to be under water). This week, the Commission went to bat for the casinos and asked the Legislature to suspend this requirement. But only for the casinos — it would remain in effect as to lottery winnings, paycheck garnishment, etc.

Yes, we totally get that being identified as a deadbeat parent can take the sizzle out of a gaming excursion. And, as the children who are being deprived of their parents’ resources can tell you, that’s no picnic either.

There are 71 days remaining in the Legislative session — stay tuned to see what happens.

PS – the Gaming Commission has not attempted to reconcile its proposal to exempt casinos from child support checks (while leaving the lottery subject to that requirement) with its obligation under the gambling law to enhance and support the performance of the state lottery. Surely the prospect of more take-home winnings from casinos would draw a certain class of gambler away from the lottery,