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We're profiting from addiction

The dual addictions of gambling and smoking always have gone hand in hand. For proof, walk into any casino and take a deep breath.

But Oregon's rules regarding lottery games are tying the two vices together ever more closely by allowing lottery vendors to avoid being labeled 'casinos' simply by selling large quantities of cheap tobacco.

The net effect of these rules is to encourage two forms of behavior that are damaging to individuals. And considering that the people who spend their money on cigarettes, video poker and slot machines often are the ones who can least afford to do so, these rules present a moral issue that the state Lottery Commission and state legislators must address.

Under the Oregon Constitution, casinos - except Native American casinos allowed by federal law - are prohibited in this state. When that broad constitutional ban is applied to lottery retailers, it means that at least 50 percent of their gross revenues must come from nonlottery products.

The Lottery Commission recently raised the percentage to 50 because it believed that the previous 40 percent rule was allowing minicasinos to operate in Oregon. After the new rules took effect, the commission began to audit lottery retailers and take a closer look at the products they are selling.

What the audit found was that, of the 133 lottery locations analyzed so far, roughly half are getting the majority of their nonlottery revenue from selling cigarettes. In a few cases, virtually all the nonlottery sales are coming from cigarettes that are sold at the cheapest prices around.

In essence, these lottery outlets are doing almost nothing other than drawing in gamblers with the offer of below-market cigarette prices, knowing that they'll make plenty of profit off the gamblers' losses.

You don't have to be a puritan to believe that there's something inherently wrong with using one addiction to encourage another. The Lottery Commission, unfortunately, has only limited the ability to dictate what lottery vendors should sell.

But the commission's newly adopted regulations do give it greater leeway than before - and it should use that discretion to full advantage to crack down on minicasinos.

Longer-term reform will have to wait until the next legislative session, but the political pressure is great to not tamper with a lottery system that now brings in nearly $1 billion every biennium.

Those proceeds are funding important investments in education, state parks, the expansion of light rail into Clackamas County and economic development activities.

Oregonians want all of those things. Unfortunately, we are getting many of them from gambling.

We recognize that Oregonians are not prepared to give up lottery games and that Oregon's elected leadership is not prepared to give up on the state's financial dependence on the $1 billion proceeds from lottery games.

But we do think that it's time for legislators to stop rationalizing Oregon's financial and social addiction to the lottery - and the state's tacit encouragement of destructive behavior. It's time to seriously examine how we can reduce our collective financial and social dependence on gambling.

A modest beginning would be to require lottery vendors to be something more than nicotine-pushing casinos in disguise.