The Truth About Lottery Promotion

The drawing of lots for ownership and other rights has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. But lotteries as an instrument for material gain are much more recent, and first appeared in the United States with James I of England’s lottery in 1612. Since then state governments have established a wide range of games, using them to raise money for town repairs, wars, colleges, public-works projects, and other purposes.

Lottery advocates argue that the proceeds are a painless source of revenue, whereby individuals voluntarily spend their own money for the benefit of a public good (such as education). This argument is especially appealing during times of economic stress, when it is easy to invoke fear of tax increases or budget cuts. But studies suggest that objective fiscal circumstances have little or no effect on whether or when states adopt a lottery.

While the odds of winning a lottery are relatively low, many people do play — and spend large amounts of their own money. Some players become addicted, consuming significant portions of their disposable incomes to buy tickets. Others are less committed but still spend considerable time and effort trying to maximize their chances of winning.

The vast majority of the funds raised by a lottery go to prize winners, rather than to administrative expenses or the cost of producing and running the games. This fact alone raises serious questions about the fairness and appropriateness of lottery promotion, particularly its focus on winning a prize.