The Costs of Playing the Lottery


In America and many other countries, lottery games allow people to win big sums of money by selecting numbers that are randomly drawn by machines. But the winnings can come with a cost that goes beyond money. A new study shows that the lottery can lead to substance abuse, addiction, and even criminality.

Although the casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history in human culture, the use of lotteries to distribute cash is much more recent. Early American colonists held lotteries to raise money for paving streets, building wharves, and even founding colleges. Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to fund cannons for the defense of Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia operate a lottery. But six don’t — Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada, which hosts Las Vegas. The reasons for the exceptions vary. For example, the religious concerns of Alabama and Utah may drive those states to forgo a lottery. In other cases, the state government already gets a cut of lottery revenue and doesn’t want to compete with itself.

But it’s important to remember that the majority of lottery revenue comes from a minority of players. The study found that 70 to 80 percent of lottery sales are generated by just 10 percent of the population that plays. And those players are disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite and male. As the lottery becomes more prevalent and accessible with advances in technology, those who play it are becoming increasingly desperate to win.