The Addict's Veto

Jacob Sullum

11/21/2007 12:01:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

Annie Duke, who testified at a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on Internet gambling, is not a typical poker player. A professional for 13 years, she is the biggest female money winner in the history of tournament poker.

Gregory J. Hogan Jr. is not a typical poker player, either. As his father, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Barberton, Ohio, explained at a House Financial Services Committee hearing last summer, "Gregory Jr. is currently in prison for a robbery he committed to feed his online gambling addiction."

While Annie Duke recognizes that most Americans who play poker do it for fun, not for a living, Pastor Hogan tends to over-generalize from his son's equally extreme experience with the game, which involved losing hundreds of dollars a day while playing 12 hours at a time. Hogan demands an addict's veto over Internet gambling: Because his son robbed a bank, he thinks, no one should be allowed to play poker online.

"I oppose any effort to legalize or even give credibility to Internet gambling," Hogan said. He called last year's passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which effectively requires American financial institutions to shun transactions related to online wagers, "an answer to my prayers that other families would not have to suffer as my family has."

Hogan's argument is a fine illustration of prohibitionist logic, which says anything that can be done to excess should be illegal. But as Duke noted, "If the government is going to ban every activity that can lead to harmful compulsion, the government is going to have to ban nearly every activity. Shopping, day trading, sex, (eating) chocolate, even drinking water -- these and myriad other activities, most of which are part of everyday life, have been linked to harmful compulsions."

According to a survey reported in the October 2006 American Journal of Psychiatry, about 6 percent of shoppers experience "compulsive buying." Data from the federal government indicate that the rate of alcohol abuse or dependence among past-year drinkers is something like 13 percent.

By comparison, a 2007 government-sponsored survey in the United Kingdom, where Internet wagering is legal, found that 6 percent of people who had placed sports bets online and 7.4 percent of people who had placed other kinds of online bets in the previous year qualified as "problem gamblers" based on American Psychiatric Association criteria. That does not mean they were robbing banks; it means they acknowledged at least three of 10 gambling-related problems, such as "chasing losses," "a preoccupation with gambling," "a need to gamble with increasing amounts of money" and "being restless or irritable when trying to stop gambling."

The prevalence of problem gambling among all past-year gamblers (excluding lottery ticket buyers) was 1.3 percent. Does that mean "gambling online is several times more addictive" than other forms of gambling, as Thomas McClusky of the Family Research Council claimed at the House Judiciary Committee hearing?

Not necessarily. It could simply be that people who are inclined to gamble heavily are especially attracted to online gambling. Notably, the overall rate of problem gambling in the United Kingdom remained unchanged between 1999 and 2007, despite the rise (and legalization) of Internet wagering.

In any case, it's plain that one cannot safely draw any conclusions about the usual experience of online gamblers from the story of the minister's son who robbed a bank to support his poker habit. According to Duke, the average online poker player spends about $10 a week, in exchange for which he has some fun and sharpens his skills.

"For the majority of Americans, playing poker is a hobby," Duke told the House Judiciary Committee. "They should have a right to choose how to spend their discretionary income, whether it be on poker or anything else." They do not expect to become poker champions, and they should not be treated like bank robbers.