Steve Chapman

Here we see the common problem of all these avenues: They allow competent adults an easy means to wager if they want to. The critics would prefer the good old days, when the only way to satisfy the urge was to make the expensive journey to Sin City, Nev. Ever since legal gambling began proliferating, they've been crying wolf. But in stark contrast to the outcome of the fable, the wolf has failed to appear.

The image we get from these advocates is that the more available legal gambling is the more destruction ensues. Given our latent puritanical distrust of harmless pleasures, that may sound eminently plausible, but it isn't true.

A 2011 article by Harvard Medical School researchers Howard Shaffer and Ryan Martin in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology concluded that "the rate of PG (pathological gambling) has remained relatively stable during the past 35 years despite an unprecedented increase in opportunities and access to gambling."

Anyone tempted to bet on games of chance now has a raft of choices, from slot machines to racetracks to state lotteries to video poker. But the expansion of legal gambling has failed to litter the landscape with more desperate addicts burning through the mortgage money.

Why not? When I called Shaffer in 2011, he told me that gambling is different from other compulsive habits. "If you smoke a few cigarettes, you'll probably soon be smoking every day. If you shoot heroin a couple of times, pretty soon you won't be able to live without it. But for the vast majority of those who gamble, control comes easy."

Of course, it's always possible for a respectable soccer mom to venture into a comfy little shop in search of respite, only to end up squandering funds every day on an unbreakable addiction. But it's probably too late to ban Starbucks.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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