You know the way it is: you are in the shop, you only want to buy a newspaper, you’re already late for whatever it is you need to do next. You get to the check-out; just one middle-aged man in front of you. But, oh dear! The man is asking the sales assistant to check his lottery tickets, to see whether he won anything. No, nothing, Is the sales assistant sure? Yes, totally. So what does the man do? Cut his losses and get on with his life? Absolutely not! He needs another lottery ticket. And when he has that, three scratch cards. No, make that four. Actually, five. And then, could the sales assistant check the last ticket again, he feels sure he did win something.
Well, one thing was sure, I was standing behind an addict. Quite apart from the obvious obsession and the need to keep buying and checking, the man was sweating, and as he handled the various tickets and scratch cards his hand was shaking. This was, frankly, not someone who should be entertained for this kind of purchase.
When the Irish National Lottery got into business in the mid-1980s I did buy a few scratch cards and I entered the lotto two or three times; and again, nearly ten years later, I did the same when I lived in England and the National Lottery started up there. Between the two jurisdictions I have probably spent £30 or so over 25 years – actually, over 15, as I haven’t bought any during the current decade. I am happy to say that this investment has yielded a return of £20 exactly (well, I am mixing the UK and the former Irish Pound, but you get the picture). So I am not an addict, I had some modest winnings, and have contributed £10 net to what are always described as ‘good causes’.
In many ways the lottery could be said to be a good thing, providing resources for community and social needs. Ot could it? Apparently lottery ticket purchases have gone up by nearly 10 per cent since the start of the recession, as people attempt to escape from the financial reality of their lives into the fantasy prospect of big winnings. And who does this? Disproportionately the disadvantaged and the poorer sections of the population. In fact, it could be argued that the lottery is a tax on the poor.
I am not sure enough of my ground to suggest that we close down the lottery. But I feel sceptical enough about it to suggest we should have another look at the case for it, and assess what social impact it is having. It may be funding good projects, but if the price is to make addicts of the poor, it is too high.