The Pros and Cons of Lottery Advertising

A lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize state or national lotteries. People often play for money, but there are also prizes such as cars, houses, vacations, and other luxury items. Despite the risk of losing money, many people are drawn to lottery games, and their popularity has made states and companies that run them profitable.

Aside from the obvious, that lotteries are a form of gambling, there are two popular moral arguments against them: one, that they are a type of “regressive taxation.” Regressive taxes place a heavier burden on poorer citizens than wealthier ones do, and studies have shown that lottery revenues tend to be disproportionately taken by the poor. The second argument against lotteries is that they deceive the public by implying that the money they raise for states is “voluntary.” In reality, state government relies on lottery sales to supplement its regular revenues, which come from income, property, and sales taxes.

People who play the lottery have an inextricable attraction to gambling, and there’s no doubt that winning a large sum of money makes some people feel that they’ve earned it. But that doesn’t make it right to take advantage of them for the benefit of a state’s coffers. Moreover, lottery advertising promotes the idea that playing is “responsible,” but it’s hard to see how that claim squares with the fact that most winners don’t have a plan for what to do with their winnings and often wind up bankrupt within a few years.

Lottery proponents argue that it’s a better alternative to raising taxes, which is a more regressive way of funding state programs and services. There’s never much enthusiasm for cutting back on cherished state programs, but if you’re going to cut back, you need to find new sources of revenue. Lotteries are less regressive than income, property, and sales taxes, and they’re an easy way to boost the bottom line for state agencies.

Lottery ads frequently tout the amount that a winner will receive and the percentage of ticket sales that go to the state. But they rarely put those figures in the context of overall state revenue. It’s an unsubtle message, intended to make players feel good about themselves because they’re doing their civic duty by buying a lottery ticket. In reality, the percentage of lottery proceeds that goes to the state is a tiny fraction of the total money the games take in. Most of the rest is profit for convenience store owners, lottery suppliers (who also donate heavily to state political campaigns), teachers, and state legislators.