Places such as Las Vegas or Atlantic City used to be the only venues for legalized gambling in the country, and there also were those boats anchored outside territorial waters where the practice thrived.
Then casinos started showing up on Indian reservations, including Cherokee in North Carolina, and state after state launched lotteries.
When the Internet hit the scene in the 1990s, that opened up whole new possibilities for online forms of gambling which defied state and national boundaries.
Within the past several years, an off-track betting facility even opened in Henry County, Va., about an hour from Mount Airy, allowing people to wager on horse races.
Presently, one of the biggest gambling issues in North Carolina involves the proliferation of those Internet sweepstakes parlors where computerized versions of slot machines, video poker, keno and many more games can be accessed.
Mount Airy is now home to at least five of those businesses, mirroring a trend across the state that has posed a quandary for lawmakers unsure of how to deal with the practice. Part of the problem seems to be the distinction between computer servers used by the Internet cafes and actual gambling devices such as video poker machines which clearly are outlawed.
I personally don’t see where there’s a difference; if a person is spending money on a chance to win or lose, then it’s gambling — plain and simple — whether the process involves a computer server or blackjack dealer on a riverboat. (That’s also true of the stock market, isn’t it?)
The question at hand is, should these Internet sweepstakes businesses be made unlawful?
If they were the only game in town — so to speak — where gambling was occurring, I would say yes. It then would be easy to isolate the problem to a few entities operating with the aid of a legal loophole.
However, we aren’t living in those same days when you could point to one thing in specific and say that it was violating our legal and moral principles, because gambling now encompasses so much of the American landscape. Some form of the activity is sanctioned in 48 of the 50 states.
Aside from that are “underground” forms of gambling, such as office pools for the NCAA Tournament, Super Bowl bets, NASCAR pools and private wagers on everything else from the World Series to the Kentucky Derby.
I agree with state Sen. Don East, who in so many words believes that a situation of “Hey Black, Kettle calling” would be evident if North Carolina tried to shut down the Internet parlors. “I’m not sure I can say, ‘Mr. Private Citizen, you can’t get into the same business as the government is,’” East said recently in reference to the state’s sale of lottery tickets.
So the fair and logical thing is to try to regulate the sweepstakes industry in a reasonable manner, including limiting the locations where they can operate and making sure cafes aren’t accessible to minors.
At the same time, I believe there is a responsibility to educate people about the growing problems and challenges associated with gambling, regardless of what outlet is involved, and this is an area where schools could play a big role. Just as children are warned about the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, drugs and reruns of “Roseanne,” they could be educated about gambling addiction.
Of course, no one wants to see North Carolina become another Nevada, where a person can’t walk into a grocery store without first passing rows of video poker machines, or eat in a restaurant where keno isn’t being played.
Yet it is unrealistic to think at this point that state officials can or should cherry-pick certain types of gambling to legislate out of existence. For whatever the reasons, gambling in its many forms has been allowed to gain way too much of a foothold.
And if you were going to draw a line in the sand — in North Carolina or elsewhere — just where would that line be?
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 719-1924.