- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

RICHMOND — In its first 15 years of operation, the Virginia Lottery has taken $13 billion out of the pockets of players and returned more than half of it as prize money. The state also has taken a $4.5 billion cut.

Whether all that is good or bad depends on whom you ask, but this much is certain: The lottery has defied the odds by continuing to thrive despite economic downturns, advertising restrictions and the “jackpot fatigue” that sets in when players lose interest in million-dollar prizes.

“We are an anomaly in the lottery industry,” said Penelope W. Kyle, executive director of the Virginia Lottery. “Our sales have not flattened out.”

Sales have more than doubled from $409 million in fiscal year 1989 to more than $1.1 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30. The growth has been steady, with sales increasing in all but three years. Profits have increased from nearly $141 million to just over $375 million.

“We turned over more money to the state this year than we ever expected, and we hope to do the same next year,” Miss Kyle said.

The key to continued growth, she said, has been the addition of new games to appeal to two types of players — those who favor the instant results of scratch-off tickets, and the millionaire wannabes who prefer the big jackpots of computerized, Lotto-type drawings.

The only game available on Sept. 20, 1988, the lottery’s first day, was a scratch game called “Match 3.” That has grown to more than 60 scratch games and five online games, including the multistate Lotto South and Mega Millions drawings.

Miss Kyle said the latest strategy for generating interest in the lottery is emphasizing that profits go to schools. The tie will be strengthened by the lottery’s sponsorship of a scholastic “Battle of the Brains” competition this school year, she said.

The lottery has become such an accepted fixture in Virginia that memories of the fierce debate that preceded its creation have largely faded. However, opponents of state-sponsored gambling are still out there.

“I haven’t changed my thinking about it at all,” said former state Delegate William T. Wilson of Covington, who was the legislature’s most vocal opponent of the lottery. “I still think it’s an inappropriate way to produce revenue to run a state.”

Lottery supporters portrayed the games as a way to bolster state revenue through a form of voluntary taxation. Opponents argued that many poor people, enticed by unrealistic visions of striking it rich, would gamble away the family’s grocery money.

Anti-gambling lobbyist Bill Kincaid acknowledges there is no evidence that the dire predictions of lottery critics have come true, but he says that’s because no studies have been conducted. “There’s got to be some societal and financial consequences, but we don’t know what they are,” he said. “Government should know what the costs are, but in this case, the state of Virginia does not.”

Mr. Wilson said he doesn’t need scientific data.

“I haven’t gone out and done a poll, but I’ve got eyes to see, and I see who’s playing the lottery,” he said. “People who would normally take that money and buy clothing and food for the family and pay the rent are spending that money on the lottery.”

Legislators sought to minimize any potential problems by restricting lottery advertising to such basic information as prize amounts and odds of winning. They also required that tickets include a phone number players can call for help for gambling addiction.

Critics periodically complained that humorous TV spots featuring the lottery’s rumpled, wand-toting “Lady Luck” character went beyond what was allowed by law. Those ads have largely vanished — not because of the complaints, Miss Kyle said, but because of tight finances.

“The governor asked all state agencies to cut back, and that includes us,” she said. “Our advertising expenditures have dropped 24 percent from our peak year.”

Miss Kyle said the relatively low number of calls to the hot line for problem gamblers is evidence that the lottery is not as addictive as other forms of gambling, such as sports betting.

“Gamblers aren’t interested in games of chance. They want to rely on their skills. There is no skill or knowledge involved in getting six numbers for Saturday night,” Miss Kyle said.

Lottery spokesman Ed Scarborough said the hot line receives about 300 calls a year from people seeking help for themselves or someone else for gambling addiction.

About one-third of those are lottery related. The rest concern problems with other forms of gambling, he said.

Most callers are referred to Gamblers Anonymous, a program based on the 12-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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