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[The Strip Sense]

18 is enough

Opposing a lowered gambling age shows a hypocrisy in Sin City

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For a split second, if that, a few folks in Nevada mulled an idea proffered in a somewhat offhanded way by an attorney for a slot-machine manufacturer at a gloomy little state-of-the-industry conference. It was an idea so outlandish, so outrageous, so devious and ridiculous and dangerous that within one news cycle even the guy who dared to utter it said he was just asking a darned question and, geez, he wasn’t serious.

What horrifying thought could generate such outraged unanimity among a wide range of political bedfellows—Gov. Jim Gibbons and CityLife editor Steve Sebelius agreeing on something?!?—and such embarrassment that the notion could even be uttered?

I’ll tell you. The guy sorta, kinda wondered if maybe a state suffering a budget shortfall that could prompt the termination of school librarians and a halt to cancer treatments at public hospitals would consider expanding the pool of potential gamblers by—oh God, will this laptop keyboard spontaneously combust if I even type such shameful, forbidden words?—lowering the legal age for casino play to 18.

To which I ask: Uh, why not?

I quizzed U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley about this last week while chatting for a different story. She’s opposed, too, but the normally articulate congresswoman couldn’t provide a clear explanation as to why, resorting to a trite, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and referring to her experience in the industry as guiding her view. Yet at one point she made my argument for me by saying, “Thirty is more mature than 21 also.”

Indeed, these ages are totally arbitrary. So why is this such an awful idea that it can’t even be discussed in polite company? Fifteen states and several of the Indian casinos—including ones in neighboring California and Arizona—already allow 18-year-olds to play. Most state lotteries allow it, too. Hell, in Maine you can tug a slot machine at 16. Sixteen!

“Yeah, and at 14 you can marry your cousins in some states,” Berkley cracked. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, either.”

Some who recoil at this suggestion do so because it was raised in the context of the budget crisis as part of a theory that if we could just increase gaming revenue we could fill in some of the shortfall. And so it is anathema to two groups, those who want a more diverse tax structure and hope this crisis forces that change and those who to think it’s icky to dig around for additional funds by preying on an allegedly vulnerable class of people.

Nevada, of course, is known ’round the globe for always putting its feet down against the financial exploitation of vulnerable people! Why not force credit, mental-health and employment checks on all adult gamblers? Ban casinos from cashing paychecks and creating casino player-reward programs? Prohibit gamers from advertising on bus shelters in poor areas of Vegas, in oldster rags, on billboards in every Chinatown in America?

Those who think it’s indelicate for the state to consider lowering the gambling age with such a motive forget that every notable spurt in new legal gaming has come when lawmakers sought to kick-start an economy and fill public coffers. When did Nevada legalize gambling? Oh, that’s right, in 1931. Just when the Great Depression was getting great. How about Atlantic City? That would be 1976, when the town was about to metaphorically slip into the sea. The biggest push of all? Early 1990s across the country. National economy? Lousy, though I know a few stockbrokers who now recall that downturn with comparative nostalgia.

So is it really that outrageous to consider having Nevada compete for a set of 12 million potential 18-to-20-year-old customers already in play in 15 other states?

Of course not. But let’s leave the guvmint and even the economy out of this for a moment. The Las Vegas Sun, which is owned by the Weekly’s corporate parents and which editorialized on November 12 against lowering the age, dismissed the argument that 18-year-olds who can vote and die in wars also should be able to bet on the Mets, however stupid that would be.

The paper claimed the connection is dubious, that the military trains kids for readiness in a way that they are not vetted when they put money on red at the Nugget. The writer clearly isn’t related to a young enlistee in this war-torn era; my 18-year-old Little Brother through Big Brothers Big Sisters heads to Air Force boot camp in seven weeks. I know him as well as anyone, and I assure you he’s far more capable of deciding he can’t afford to play blackjack than he is of facing the horrors of combat.

But, back on point, the reflex by the Gibbonses and Sebeliuses to oppose lowering the age reflects Nevada’s lurking inferiority complex. We tell ourselves and the world and every Congressional panel that asks that gambling is a legitimate activity, that it is a solid and honest industry, that people should be able to make personal choices and that Wall Street should value it highly.

Evidently, though, we don’t believe our own lip. We’re embarrassed by what we do. We don’t want to be seen as predatory by expanding it. The Sun warned that “Nevada’s reputation would be harmed” by a serious effort to change the age. Sebelius’ CityLife ran an editorial ominously titled “They’re coming for your children.”

Children!?!?! A 20-year-old is a child? Then I guess we must bar them from having sex, too. Lord knows, most of them aren’t mature enough to be parents, and many end up that way anyway. Heck, in two Silver State counties, 18-year-old girls can be brothel whores. Where’s the outrage over that?

Any argument for protecting those precious, burbling 18-to-20-year-olds can—and has—been made to prohibit gambling altogether. It goes like this: Legal gambling leads some people to spend money they don’t have.

In general, we dismiss this notion here in Las Vegas. But 21? Why, that’s a magic number! That’s special for this specific activity! That’s when real financial responsibility kicks in!

Or maybe that’s just what those with misgivings about our raison d’être rationalize to help them sleep at night. It doesn’t mean it makes any logical sense, though.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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