This article was originally published in the Fayetteville Observer.
Since passage of legislation to legalize the education lottery in North Carolina in 2005, gambling has been treated like other public vices. Simply put: the public tolerates smoking, drinking and gambling, but it wants the activities regulated and kept away from children. Some recent developments make me think officials at the North Carolina Education Lottery are ignoring public sentiment and are intent on creating their own rules.
Earlier this month, NCEL officials visited Fayetteville State University to film a commercial. The commercial was to highlight how lottery money has helped to benefit one local school.
Evidently, lottery officials were unaware of a May 24 memo sent from UNC President Erskine Bowles to all campuses requesting that campuses not encourage gambling among students and that they end advertising sponsorship agreements with the North Carolina Education Lottery.
Later, in response to NCEL’s narrow reading of the Bowles’ memo, Chief of Staff for the UNC System Jeff Davis rebuffed lottery officials when he said the UNC directive was meant to be interpreted widely, and not limited to just athletic events.
Translation: UNC does not want any campuses supporting, sponsoring or endorsing the North Carolina Education Lottery.
Lottery officials said they chose FSU to highlight how a local childhood center can benefit from lottery revenue and funding for preschool at-risk programs like More at Four. Although I haven’t seen the commercial, my guess is the advertisement includes lots of happy, smiling children. And therein lies the problem.
There is strong public opposition to using children in lottery ads. State Sen. Larry Shaw asks: “Would you use young kids to sell liquor?”
A quick look through the statutes tells us laws governing the North Carolina Education Lottery are located between laws governing the regulation of alcoholic beverages and laws regarding offenses against public morals. Does that placement tell us anything about public sentiment?
Lottery officials are hoping the publicity blows over. However, it may not. North Carolina statutes (18C-130[e]) state, “Lottery advertising shall be tastefully designed and presented in manner to minimize the appeal of lottery games to minors.”
Does the inclusion of children minimize the appeal of lottery games to minors? Hardly.
You don’t see children in smoking or alcohol advertisements. A strong case can be made that the inclusion of children in many ways maximizes the appeal of lottery games to minors and further legitimizes gambling in the eyes of young people.
Not to be lost in this discussion is the fact that nearly all of the children used in this commercial were African-American. Some have wondered: Is the NCEL targeting black children to persuade black parents to buy lottery tickets? Only NCEL knows. Lottery officials say black children are in the commercial because they wanted to film at a school that had used lottery money for preschool programs and school construction. If that’s the case, NCEL could have gone to any number of schools. According to NCEL’s own Web site, 50 percent of net lottery funds are designated for class reduction and pre-school programs and 40 percent of net proceeds are distributed to counties for school construction costs. Thus in actuality, such funds are distributed to many schools around the state. Such a commercial could just as well have been filmed in a variety of closer locations. NCEL’s response fails to provide any compelling reason that lottery officials chose FSU as the location.
These have not been happy times for NCEL. Shortfalls in revenue have meant other money has had to be used to fill holes in education budgets.
Still, NCEL’s problems with lower-than-expected lottery sales may in part prove the contention that many people in North Carolina really don’t want a lottery.
Instead of recognizing the obvious, the legislature passed a bill that allows commissioners – among other things – to increase prize money and advertising expenditures in hopes of generating more players and more revenue. To do so, NCEL is now telling us how wonderful the lottery is for our schools and for our kids. I beg to differ.
Yes, the Education Lottery probably is here to stay. Despite this reality, I still believe there is something morally wrong with using dollars derived from gambling to help fund education. Sure, having the state shill get-rich lottery schemes – frequently targeted at populations who can least afford them – provides revenue for a variety of programs. But at what cost?
Efforts to further legitimize gaming undercut the values of hard work and self-discipline and come with hefty social and financial costs. Using kids in lottery advertisements is a disservice to us and our young people. It’s time we treat it as such.
Dr. Robert Luebke is a senior policy analyst at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.