There used to be no such thing as round-the-clock gambling in Illinois. Since the opening of the state's first casinos, hours have been limited to 22 each day. Then last September, video gambling machines were introduced at sites that include 24/7 truck stops, letting anyone with an itch to play day and night gamble literally nonstop -- without setting foot in a casino.
Now alarm bells are sounding for casino owners who see a competitive disadvantage for themselves, and they've asked regulators to allow casinos to operate 24 hours a day as well. But there are good reasons for mandating a once-a-day breather for gamblers, and the Illinois Gaming Board should reject this proposal and perhaps even consider limits on the video machines.
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It's as clear as the crystal chandeliers in the lobbies why casino owners want this change. For years their profits have been slammed by the recession, the indoor smoking ban and, most recently, a soaring video gambling industry. Since last spring, video gambling statewide has made more money than each of the 10 Illinois casinos except Rivers in Des Plaines.
Allowing casinos to stay open all day and night would take away one more defense against problem gambling. Such a setting could weaken the judgment of sleep-deprived gamblers. Casinos already have ways to entice them to stay, including creating an environment with no windows or clocks so they lose track of time. Under the proposal, gamblers also would have additional time to drink, raising the potential for more drunken driving. Forcing a break, even for a couple of hours, would give gamblers a better chance of avoiding addiction, according to John Kindt, a University of Illinois professor emeritus and senior editor of the United States International Gambling Report.
States that sponsor gambling have the responsibility, at least in part, to guard against its ills. Lawmakers acknowledge the potential for problem gambling when they require protections like signs in casinos that tell addicts where to get help. The state also offers a self-exclusion program.
The request by the Illinois Casino Gaming Association is understandable. Casino owners do what they can to compete within an ever-changing gambling landscape. As far back as 1999, they proposed 24-hour gambling, pointing to border states that allowed it. They unsuccessfully requested the change again in 2008, the year of the smoking ban.
In general, government shouldn't give one business an advantage over another. But in this case, the safety and well-being of citizens is a compelling argument to limit casino hours. Perhaps a better way to level the playing field would be to shut down all video gambling machines for at least two hours a day as well. The effect on that industry would be minimal, as only 50 of the 2,230 video gambling venues are truck stops.
The board will hear comments Thursday in Chicago. We urge a vote of no. The gambling business may be changing, but the need for protection against problem gambling isn't.