Military slot machines

Often, when I am giving a public lecture or statement, I say that the federal government has endorsed casino gaming. Some people just nod, while others look confused or even contemptuous. “What do you mean?” they ask.

The first example I cite is Indian gaming: each of the three branches of the federal government has endorsed casino gaming on Indian reservations as an effective tool for economic development.

The second, not so widely known, example is military slot machines. The military has about 4150 machines on bases oversees, and they make about $120 million a year.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a win per machine per day of about $79. To put it in perspective, slots on the Strip make about $120 a day, while those in Atlantic City make about $200.

Looking at this only from the bottom line, I’d guess that if Peter Issacs (who is in charge of most military slots) was a VP of slot gaming at a US casino, he would have been fired long ago. Sorry, Pete, but business is business.

I bring all of this up because there is an article in the New York Times which tries to parlay the rather unexceptional nature of miltiary slots into a pathological gambling epidemic among the military.

Military gambling is a big business. About $2 billion flows through military-owned slot machines at officers’ clubs, activities centers and bowling alleys on overseas bases each year. Most flows back out as jackpots, but 6 percent remains with the house, about the same ratio as in Las Vegas.

Each year, the armed forces take in more than $120 million from on-base slot machines and $7 million from Army bingo games at home. These funds help pay for recreational programs for the troops.

But even military researchers have acknowledged that the armed forces are heavily populated by people who, like Aaron Walsh, may be especially vulnerable to gambling addiction: athletic, risk-taking young people who are experiencing severe stress and anxiety.

“And wartime is an environment that is probably creating more vulnerability than usual,” said Christine Reilly, executive director of the gambling addiction research institute at Cambridge Health Alliance, a teaching institution for the Harvard Medical School.

More than four years ago, Congress ordered the Pentagon to study how on-base slot machines were affecting military families. The Pentagon initially hired PricewaterhouseCoopers to do the study, but it ended the contract after a few months and completed the study itself.

The final report provided no new data about the rate of problem gambling. But it did caution Congress that the military could not maintain many popular programs, like golf courses and family activity centers, “without slot machine revenue or a significant new source of cash.”

One consultant who worked with PricewaterhouseCoopers was Rachel Volberg, a medical sociologist who runs Gemini Resources, which measures gambling rates around the world. “We met a great deal of defensiveness, both in Washington and on base,” she said. “Everyone was very concerned that those revenues might go away.”

She added: “Only the chaplains took this really seriously. They told us that one out of three people who come to them for counseling have a problem with gambling, but can’t tell anyone because they will be dishonorably discharged.”

Slot machines are “a very profitable operation,” said Peter Isaacs, the chief operating officer of the Army’s Community and Family Support Center, which runs the largest slot machine program. “But we do not operate them strictly to extract profit. Our soldiers have told us they want access to the same games and gambling opportunities available to the civilians they are defending.”

The military is “very passive in our advertising, and we have low maximum jackpots,” Mr. Isaacs continued. “We don’t want to encourage people to blow the rent money chasing a $1 million payout.” He added, “The vast majority of the troops use the machines responsibly.”
Temptation to Gamble Is Near for Troops Overseas – New York Times

While pathological gambling is a legitimate problem, I think the numbers back up Issacs. The win per machine per day numbers back up his claim that machines aren’t run just for profit. Like I said before, a slot manager who showed that kind of revenue in virtually any legal American casino jurisdiction would be out of a job before the finished counting the drop.

The issue of servicepeople suffering from gambling problems points back to the general question of whether it is ethical to restrict the availability of legal gambling–something that the vast majority of the population has no problem with–because of concerns of a small minority. Since this is a question that’s hardly been answered for society at large, it’s no surprise that there’s no easy answer within the military.

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