The lottery is predatory to the poor: Les Bernal

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The lottery is predatory to the poor: Les Bernal

A Mega Millions lottery ticket purchased in Maine was worth a staggering $1.348 billion this past Friday night. 

The winning jackpot is the fourth-largest the world has ever seen and the second-largest in Mega Millions game history, as FOX Business reported.

While many people play the lottery with dreams of financial freedom and an escape from their current reality, one national expert is sounding the alarm about the practice, saying “predatory” gambling is America’s “most neglected major problem.”

Les Bernal is national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, an organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.

“Through its advertising and marketing of lotteries, state governments have turned a nation of small earners — who could be small savers — into a nation of habitual gamblers,” Bernal told Fox News Digital by email.

Bernal also said that over the next eight years, the American people are “going to lose more than $1 trillion of personal wealth to commercialized gambling, at least half of which is being extracted by state lotteries.”

He added, “If you could just cut that figure by 50%, there’s no other policy reform that comes in 1,000 miles of that to make a bigger difference in the lives of everyday Americans.”

A customer shops at the Hometown Gas & Grill, where a single winning ticket for a Mega Millions lottery jackpot, the second largest jackpot in U.S. history, was sold in Lebanon, Maine, U.S. January 14, 2023.
Les Bernal, director of Stop Predatory Gambling, called the lottery “a con.”
REUTERS/Amanda Sabga

‘Exploiting’ people’s ‘financial desperation’

Bernal offered specific examples of how lotteries prey on lower-income citizens.

He pointed out that there is a concentration of sales outlets in poorer communities, as well as messages on scratch tickets that “deceitfully declare” that playing is “your fastest way to a million dollars!” 

One Massachusetts 50-year-old who regularly gives scratch tickets as gifts to people he doesn’t know well, such as gifts for grab-bags, said that practice sometimes “leaves a twinge of guilt, to be honest.”

He also said, “How do I know that the recipient isn’t teetering on the edge of a gambling addiction? It’s worth thinking about.”

Bernal continued, “So if you’re someone who just lost their job, or you’re trying to pay your rent at the end of the month, or you need money to pay a large medical bill, state lotteries attempt to position themselves as the answer — exploiting the financial desperation of our fellow citizens.”

Many states are now selling $50 scratch tickets — “and Texas sells $100 scratch-off tickets” in low-income neighborhoods — “to citizens making a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour,” he said.

Fox News reached out to the Texas Lottery for comment.

“A citizen has to work two days before they can lose it all in an instant to a $100 scratch ticket promoted by Texas state government,” Bernal noted.

“State lottery advertising and marketing is the public voice of American government today,” he continued. 

“It’s what we advertise to the American people more than anything else — and it’s a con. It’s a lie,” Bernal also said. 

“What government incentivizes to the American people shapes our national character.”

Lottery marketing by income level

Bernal said that state lotteries are “driven by greed,” and their marketing and advertising strategies toward lower-income groups are “a reflection of this.”

Advertising is tailored by income category, he noted.

“Lotteries run aggressive marketing campaigns to lure low-income people to buy tickets,” he said.

“But with middle- and upper-income groups,” he continued, “lotteries target messages about the amount of money the lottery is directing to education, college scholarships or protecting the environment, depending on the state.”

A Mega Millions ticket purchased in the York County town of Lebanon matched the winning numbers for Friday nights estimated $1.35 billion grand prize. The ticket was sold at the Hometown Gas & Grill of Lebanon. Store owner Fred Cotreau greets customers on Saturday morning.
Les Bernal says Americans will lose more than $1 trillion of personal wealth because of commercialized gambling.
Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty

What separates state lotteries from every other business, including vices like alcohol and tobacco, is that it’s a “big con game,” said Bernal.

“If you pay for a pizza, a ticket to a sporting event or a glass of wine, that’s what you receive in return,” he said.

“With lotteries, what you receive is a financial exchange offering thelure that you might win money,” he continued.

This financial exchange is “mathematically stacked against you,” Bernal continued, so “you will lose your money in the end — especially if you keep gambling.”

Les Bernal
Les Bernal says that the stories of those negatively affected by commercial gambling are heart-breaking.
LesBernal/Twitter

Bernal added, “Citizens are conned into thinking they can win money on games that are designed to get them fleeced in the end. Success only comes at someone else’s expense.”

Bernal called it “a form of consumer financial fraud,” such as “price-gouging and false advertising.”

The truth is, he noted, “financial peace occurs most often from the act of regularly saving small sums of money over the long term.”

Needed reforms in marketing, advertising

Bernal believes there are three long-overdue reforms to address the major problem of predatory gambling. 

1. Protect the health and well-being of kids and families by restricting gambling advertising, marketing and sponsorships.

This includes restricting all gambling advertising and marketing on the internet, streaming platforms, TV, radio and point-of-sale locations such as convenience stores and gas stations, he said. 

A Mega Millions ticket purchased in the York County town of Lebanon matched the winning numbers for Friday nights estimated $1.35 billion grand prize. The ticket was sold at the Hometown Gas & Grill of Lebanon. Karen Downes, one of the three employees working at the store yesterday, at the register on Saturday morning at the store.
Les Bernal says there’s a concentration of lottery sales in poorer communities.
Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty

Bernal noted that “we do [this] for other products that have been formally recognized as dangerous and addictive, such as tobacco and opioids.”

2. Dramatically reduce poverty by cutting the financial losses that citizens are suffering to state lotteries by 50%.

This action would result in allowing families to keep $250 billion of personal wealth over the next eight years, Bernal said.

This includes restricting the practice of marketing “high-dollar lottery tickets” (i.e. tickets greater than $5) and other rapid-play commercialized gambling games such as “electronic gambling machines and Keno-like games, especially in low-income areas,” said Bernal.

Also, restrict the sale of lottery products in check-cashing outlets, “which serve un-banked, low-income people,” Bernal advised.

Third, “cap stake levels on all electronic gambling machine-style games, regardless [of] whether it is a physical machine or online, to $2 or less,” Bernal advised.

A Mega Millions entry card is displayed at the Cranberry Super Mini Mart in Cranberry, Pa., Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.
Les Bernal says that “more than 40 million Americans are experiencing harm caused by the greed of big gambling operators”
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

3. End the practice of state lottery operators reaping half their profits from citizens who have been turned into addicted gamblers.

This includes dismantling the industry-funded “responsible gambling” system — and replacing it with the same kind of “public health approach” that is applied to other harmful products in society, said Bernal.

Also, require commercialized gambling interests to be subject to “the same civil litigation laws as any other business in a state,” Bernal also said.

One woman’s ‘stacks of losing tickets’

“More than 40 million Americans are experiencing harm caused by the greed of big gambling operators, and each one of them has a personal story that breaks your heart,” Bernal said.

Bernal shared a personal story he is aware of, in which addictive lottery playing affected a senior citizen’s future.

One woman “had a steady job with a decent wage and for over 30 years she spent several hundred dollars a week on lottery tickets,” Bernal said.

“She kept the stacks of losing tickets year after year. Now she’s near retirement age, she’s still working long hours, but [she] is still living month-to-month financially,” he added.

Bernal continued, “If she had put all the money that she lost on government-sponsored lottery tickets over the last 30 years and had invested it month by month in a simple Standard & Poor’s 500 Index Fund, she would be a millionaire today.”

He also said, “This government program of state lotteries has led her to a lifetime of hovering above the poverty line and will keep her there all of her remaining days.”

Fox News Digital reached out to the Multi-State Lottery Association (MUSL), which coordinates Powerball, for comment.

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