Mass. should suspend lottery ticket sales

State is preying on problem gamblers who are risking their health

LAST MONTH, Massachusetts Lottery officials announced recent sales figures for lottery tickets. The numbers aren’t pretty. Sales from the week ended April 18 were down 33 percent compared to the first week of March.

The recent drop-off is due primarily to the fallout from COVID-19. Some businesses that sell lottery tickets have closed temporarily. Tickets for Powerball and MegaMillions are less appealing since the games lowered their base prizes from $40 million to $20 million. On top of all that, for many players, lottery tickets are impulse purchases. Fewer trips to the gas station or the grocery store means fewer people laying down a few dollars on the dream of a life-changing jackpot.

Massachusetts Lottery sales have been particularly affected by the shutdown because the Lottery does not offer online ticket sales. Of the nation’s 46 state lotteries, Massachusetts is one of just 10 that requires players to purchase tickets with cash. State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg has spent years advocating for cashless sales, either by debit and credit card or online. “This pandemic has dramatically exposed the limitations and vulnerabilities of the lottery’s all-cash, in-person business model,” she noted in April. While it seems inevitable that the Lottery will eventually begin selling tickets online, the Massachusetts Lottery will remain a cash-only operation for the foreseeable future.

Under these circumstances, it is in the best interest of the state and its citizens to immediately suspend all lottery sales until Massachusetts’s state-at-home advisory is lifted. During the statewide shutdown, the Lottery is preying on those who can least afford to play, unnecessarily bringing people out of their homes, and putting lives at risk for just a small economic gain.

Since March, state leaders have acknowledged that everyday commercial activity can spread the virus. Massachusetts has ordered non-essential businesses to close to facilitate social distancing.

Gambling, these same leaders acknowledge, is far from an essential business. Last week, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted to extend the closure of the state’s casinos until May 18, and that order that was extended on Thursday until at least June 1. Many businesses that sell lottery tickets are still open, but convenience stores, grocery stores, and gas stations are exempted from the order because of their other services, not because they sell lottery tickets.

The continued sale of lottery tickets in Massachusetts creates unnecessary risk for gamblers and retailers alike. While the World Health Organization has not issued any warnings about the possible transmission of COVID-19 through currency, the use of cash—rather than contactless payment—increases interaction between customers and store employees. Lottery tickets, too, which are kept behind or under store counters, need to pass from hand to hand during every purchase. The CDC cautions that the virus can last on surfaces for hours or even days.

Lottery officials understand the need for social distancing, as the agency has rightly closed its claim centers, where players cash in tickets worth more than $600. But by continuing to sell tickets, the state is providing residents with more reason to go outside and is increasing traffic in stores. In Michigan, players have been reported to congregate in convenience stores to buy tickets. The Massachusetts Lottery has taken action to protect its employees and should extend the same courtesy to convenience store workers.

The other major concern surrounding continued ticket sales is the question of who, exactly, is still playing the lottery. While sales have declined, they have not totally plummeted, indicating that a fair number of gamblers are buying their usual batch of tickets. Those who are still playing are likely committed gamblers, who, studies show, are more likely to have lower incomes or have a gambling problem compared to the average, casual lottery player.

The case of Texas illustrates the dangers of keeping a lottery open through the pandemic. Texas is one of the 10 states where gamblers can buy tickets over the internet. As the Houston Chronicle reported, after sluggish sales for most of March and April, Texas Lottery sales shot back up shortly after families began receiving their stimulus checks from the federal government. Money intended to help families buy essentials was instead spent on gambling.

In Massachusetts, which has among the highest per capita lottery sales in the nation, gamblers might be similarly tempted to spend their checks on lottery tickets, and they won’t be able to do so from the comfort of their own home.

Goldberg and other state officials will surely warn that, if the Lottery were to be shut down, the Commonwealth will lose out on its share of the profits. Last year, the Lottery raised $1 billion for Massachusetts cities and towns, amounting to roughly 5 percent of local governments’ revenue statewide.

However, if the state shut down lottery sales, this money would not simply evaporate. Instead, money that would have been spent on gambling will be saved, used for essentials like groceries, or spent on items that raise revenue for the state via sales tax.

Meet the Author
Gov. Baker and other state officials have made it clear that Massachusetts is willing to make short-term economic sacrifices to protect its citizens. Lottery income should be included in the revenue sources that the state will have to do without. The costs of keeping the Lottery open outweigh the benefits. It is time Massachusetts stop gambling with the safety of its citizens in pursuit of lottery profits.

Jonathan D. Cohen received his PhD in history from the University of Virginia. He is writing a book on the history of American state lotteries.