The hidden dangers of Internet gambling


— Some people have asked me why I strongly oppose Internet gambling and I can sum it up in one sentence: Gambling on the Internet is for chumps.

“Chumps” is an old-school reference to naïve and foolish people, the ones who think if they make just one more bet they will strike it rich but instead find themselves in a deep, deep financial hole.

Long before the Internet became part of our daily lives, the chump sought out the corner street game where you tried to pick out the “money” card out of three cards laying face down on a cardboard box. And you guessed it the chump never picked the right card.

More than 50 years ago, former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy saw the dangers of illegal gambling and organized crime. He pushed for new laws to protect Americans and Congress enacted those laws, including the Wire Act.

When the Internet was in its infancy in the late 1990s, the Wire Act continued to serve its purpose by limiting online gambling. But in 2011 the Justice Department— without consulting Congress— said the Wire Act does not apply to many forms of Internet gambling thereby allowing states to make Internet gambling legal. Some states cheered the ruling as a way to raise revenue by taxing the Internet providers.

I acknowledge that legalized gambling in casinos, approved by voters in my state of Colorado, has helped the state raise needed revenue for our community colleges and historic preservation. The difference is that casinos are a controlled-environment where limits are set, and additionally the casinos provide jobs.

In contrast, there are no limits with Internet gambling except a person’s own self-control. Making lottery tickets and other casino games available on the Internet 24/7 on a cell phone, tablet or home computer is dangerous for any chump of any color. I am particularly concerned about the African American community.

A 2009 study by the National Institute of Health found that black Americans are nearly twice as likely to be what they called “disordered gamblers.” That means poor Americans are more likely to have addictions to gambling and often are targeted with grand stories of striking it rich.

Internet gambling is a financial risk to our community and could become as serious as other health risks we face. National health reports show that black men and women have the highest overall mortality rate for coronary disease than any ethnic group in the United States. We are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as non-blacks and have the highest mortality rate of any racial and ethnic group for all cancers.

Allowing Internet gambling is like having a fast food restaurant in your living room. You can pig out on gambling any time of day or night. We all know a handful of potato chips won’t hurt you but eating a whole bag in one sitting will.

The same is true for gambling. A few visits to a casino or buying lottery tickets won’t bankrupt most families but providing 24/7 Internet access could and people who are already addicted to gambling will surely spiral out of control. It would be like having an alcoholic live in a bar 24/7. Sooner or later they will reach for that one drink because it is right at their fingertips— just like Internet gambling is for the gambling addict.

It’s time for Congress to reassert its policy-making role by putting the teeth back in the Wire Act so we can better understand and regulate Internet gambling. Otherwise, we’re sure to see more wannabe millionaires turn into chumps.

Wellington Webb served as mayor of Denver from 1991-2003. He is a national co-chair of the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling.