Lottery Gambling and Its Dangerous Effects


A lottery is an arrangement for awarding prizes to people based on the drawing of lots. The practice is recorded in many ancient documents and became common in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when it was used to raise money for towns, wars, colleges, and public-works projects. It also served as a means of selecting landowners for property settlement and other rights.

It is no surprise, then, that lotteries have become one of the most popular forms of gambling in the world. Some states even require players to buy a ticket before they can play at their casinos. But what is less well understood is how lotteries promote irrational and largely irresponsible betting habits among their players. The fact that the odds of winning are so long is not enough to discourage most people from playing. The real problem is that they do so with the naive belief that there’s a chance for a miracle, an improbable way out of their dire circumstances.

When lottery jackpots hit record levels and the number of tickets sold reaches dizzying heights, it’s easy to see why many people feel this pull. The jackpots are so large that they have to be seen to be believed, and the huge amounts of money being handed out imply a chance for instant riches—the kind of “lucky” windfall that could give people new houses, cars, or businesses. And of course, this fabled wealth attracts the attention of the media, driving more and more people to their local retailers to purchase tickets.

What’s more, the way jackpots grow so quickly, to seemingly newsworthy amounts that can be seen from space, encourages lottery marketers to push players toward bigger and bigger wagers. This is because a larger amount of the prize pool will be allocated to the winner, a process that relies on chance. So while you can use software to pick your numbers, or rely on astrology or your favorite numbers or ask friends or use your birthdates as lucky digits, it doesn’t matter. The numbers are randomly chosen, and it’s impossible to predict the outcome with any accuracy.

Another big message that lottery companies are relying on is the idea that if you lose, at least you’re helping the state by buying your ticket. This skewed and misleading message obscures the fact that the lottery is regressive, and it’s meant to make it more appealing to people who might otherwise be turned off by its glitzy advertising campaigns.

In the immediate post-World War II period, states were able to expand their array of services without imposing especially onerous taxes on the middle and working classes. But this arrangement began to crumble in the 1960s, when the costs of the Vietnam War pushed up the cost of everything from highway construction to public schools. By the 1970s, states were desperately trying to find new ways to increase their revenue and the number of public services they could provide.