Lottery Advertising and the Ethics of Government Lottery Programs

In the United States, state lotteries are government-sponsored gambling games. They use a random number generator to select winners, and they offer a prize pool in the form of money or goods. Many people play the lottery on a regular basis. Lottery advertising necessarily focuses on persuading individuals to spend their discretionary income on the chance of winning. This article examines the issues resulting from this promotion of gambling and whether or not it is an appropriate function for government.

The casting of lots to decide fates and distribute material possessions has a long history in human societies, including several instances in the Bible. The modern public lottery, however, is a recent development. The first public lotteries to award prizes in the form of money appear in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, where towns raised funds to fortify town defenses or to help the poor.

Since New Hampshire initiated the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, they have spread to nearly every American state and territory. Lottery advocates often claim that it is a harmless form of entertainment and provides a much needed source of revenue to state governments. Critics cite problems with compulsive gambling and regressive impacts on lower-income communities as reasons to oppose state lotteries. Nevertheless, the adoption of state lotteries and their subsequent evolution have followed remarkably similar patterns.