Lottery Issues That Require Government Action


Lottery is a popular form of gambling, in which participants have a chance to win money or other prizes based on a random draw of numbers. The origins of lottery go back centuries, with references to it appearing in the Old Testament, and Roman emperors reportedly using it to give away land and slaves. In the modern era, lottery games have become commonplace. They are operated by state governments and sold in most states, although some have not been legalized or are banned. Despite the popularity of lottery games, the practice has raised concerns among some people that they are an unjust form of taxation and contribute to social problems.

The history of lotteries reflects the long-standing human desire to win money through luck. The practice can be traced to the Old Testament, with God instructing Moses to take a census and divide the land by lot. The practice was largely banned for religious reasons until the 18th century, when it was introduced to the United States by British colonists. Initially, public opinion was overwhelmingly negative, with ten states banning lotteries between 1844 and 1859.

However, in the wake of World War II, many states began to see lottery revenues as a way to expand their array of services without incurring excessively onerous taxes on the middle and working classes. This led to the proliferation of new forms of gambling, including video poker and keno, as well as increased advertising spending.

While some of these efforts have failed, others have met with remarkable success. As a result, most states now have a state-sponsored lottery and depend on it for an ever-increasing share of their revenue. But this dependence creates a set of issues that can only be addressed by government officials, and the lottery industry itself is ill-suited to handling them.

Unlike other types of gambling, state-sponsored lotteries are run as businesses with a single goal: to maximize revenues through heavy promotional activity and targeted marketing. But this approach has its pitfalls: it may promote gambling to the poor and problem gamblers; it encourages states to prioritize lottery profits over other budget items; and it runs at cross-purposes with the larger public interest.

State officials, meanwhile, tend to make policy decisions piecemeal and incrementally, with few opportunities to step back from the lottery industry and ask whether it is serving the public interest or not. This fragmented structure is especially problematic when the state has a gambling business that becomes increasingly profitable, as was the case with lottery promotions in the 1990s. In these cases, lottery officials may find themselves at odds with convenience store operators (for whom they are a major source of income); suppliers of state-sponsored products (heavy contributions to lottery supplyers have been reported to political campaigns); and even the general public (which has grown accustomed to a constant flow of painless lottery revenues). In short, the lottery is often at cross purposes with the public interest.