Column: Don’t legalize internet gambling

Dan Jarvis

Protecting Michigan’s kids is one of the five key areas upon which our non-profit was founded in 1989 – and a driving force in all of our efforts ever since. Our strong opposition to House Bill 4926 is guided by that commitment to the welfare of our state’s children.

While our case against HB 4926 – the Lawful Internet Gaming Act – stems from the legislation’s direct threat to the values of Michigan families, it is strengthened by the serious concerns surrounding the legislation’s constitutional, fiscal, and safety shortcomings. Advancing the bill out of the Michigan House would, as a result, endanger each and every house across Michigan. Legalizing online gambling turns all computers into casinos, all cellphones into slot machines and all iPads and tablets into poker tables. The only thing that stands between our kids and the one click away from a 24/7, 365 virtual casino isn’t an ID card but an Internet connection.

While our side is driven by concern for children, our opponents – online gambling companies and the army of special interest lobbyists they hire – are driven to increase their revenues at the expense of our vulnerable children regardless of age.

While HB 4926 would give Michigan the dubious distinction of becoming only the fifth state in America to legalize Internet gaming, countries around the world have put forth a perilous preview of what we could expect. In 2016, an investigation by The Times (United Kingdom) revealed that children on Twitter were being “bombarded” by gambling ads from companies that currently operate in the United States. A subsequent 2017 investigation by The Sunday Times exposed “some of Britain’s biggest gambling operators” for “targeting children with their [favorite] cartoon and storybook characters in online betting games.” In Australia, meanwhile, Tabcorp entered a guilty plea for violating advertising regulations by promoting their gambling website with free candy.

In 2017, a survey conducted for the UK’s Gambling Commission found the vast majority of 11-16 year olds have seen gambling ads on television, social media, and other websites. As The Guardian wrote of the report, “about 25,000 children…are problem gamblers, with many learning to bet via computer games and social media.” Moreover, kids in that age range were found to be spending their own money on gambling more frequently than smoking cigarettes and using drugs – combined. Twenty-two percent of kids who used a parent’s account to gamble online did so without permission while 12 percent of the total kids surveyed “spent their own money on gambling in the past week” alone.

Given the grave consequences that online gaming poses, it’s clear why our state’s Constitution includes a provision that requires any expansion of gambling to be approved by the people – and why proponents of HB 4926 are so bent on violating it. As mandated in Section 41 of Article IV, no “new state lottery games utilizing table games or player operated mechanical or electronic devices” shall be established “without the approval of a majority of electors voting in a statewide general election and a majority of electors voting in the township or city where gambling will take place.” Online gambling companies are trying to enter our state by skirting our Constitution and ignoring voters’ will. That alone should tell Michiganians all they need to know about the merit of their business plan and this legislation to unleash it. Public policy should seek to inhibit – not incentivize – our children’s presence on predatory gambling websites.

Dan Jarvis is director of research and public policy at the Michigan Family Forum.