Is the Lottery a Vice?


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to win a prize. It has a long history, with the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates in ancient times (including many instances in the Bible). Lotteries began in the modern sense in the 15th century, when towns held them to raise money for town repairs and to aid the poor. The first public lottery in Europe distributed prizes of cash, and a record of the event dates to 1466 at Bruges, Belgium.

The modern era of state-sponsored lotteries began in the Northeast, where states needed to expand their social safety nets and other services without heavy taxation on the middle class and working classes. Lotteries have become a popular way to do that, and they provide a much more manageable source of revenue than traditional taxes, which disproportionately affect lower income citizens. But the very popularity of these games makes them vulnerable to the dangers of addiction, and the temptation to play them can undermine one’s ability to make responsible choices in other areas of life.

In addition to the general public, lotteries attract specific constituencies: convenience store operators, whose profits tend to be greater than those of other lottery vendors; lottery suppliers (who are often heavily involved in political campaigns); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and politicians (who gain an easy, painless source of campaign contributions). While there is some overlap among socioeconomic groups, men play more frequently than women; blacks and Hispanics more than whites; and young people and the elderly play less frequently than those in the middle age range.

It is the super-sized jackpots that drive sales and draw attention, so they are frequently increased in size to generate news coverage and promote the game. This strategy works, but it also makes the prize harder to win and increases the likelihood that the jackpot will roll over into the next drawing, generating further publicity for the game.

While there is no definitive answer to the question of whether governments should be in the business of promoting a vice, it is worth noting that lottery proceeds do not come close to matching the costs of regulating tobacco or alcohol, two other vices that are regulated by government. Further, despite the fact that gambling can lead to addiction, it does not cause nearly as many economic and social problems as do drugs and alcohol, which are not regulated by the government. It is a thorny issue that will likely remain in the spotlight for some time to come.