Consumer protection for casino customers?

If any business carries an obvious "buyer beware" label, the casino industry is it. Those who patronize these places either have money to burn, or they don't. But until recently, Pennsylvania casinos weren't in the business of extending direct credit. Now they are.

What changed? My colleague Monica Yant Kinney wrote an excellent column yesterday about how the rush to make money from casinos - both among their owners and state officials - has caused Pennsylvania to reneg on an important commitment that politicians made to protect families and communities from the fallout associated with problem gambling. Now, new rules allow casinos to offer cash advances for as much as 45 days - advances known as "markers" in the gambling world and to the rest of us as loans:

Casino credit - instant fun money - is now available on your favorite gaming floor. Forget payday lenders, boring banks or credit unions. Parx and Harrah's let you smoke, and they offer free booze. Even better? Whatever you borrow from the casino is interest-free!

Some of you may recall politicians bragging that they'd never allow anything as scurrilous as on-the-spot loans from an industry that profits so handsomely from customers' bum investments. The same legislators also said the state would stick with slots. They lied.

In January, the legislature passed amendments to the 2004 Gaming Act to allow both table games and casino credit. Last week, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board quietly approved regulations governing this exciting new development.

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Monica ends by quoting Paul Boni, a lawyer who fought the change in gears:

He understands why casinos pushed for the right to pretend to be banks: Credit makes them more money.

But the lawyer remains disgusted that elected officials went along for the ride, knowing the price of all this false generosity.

"Government used to teach people to save money," he laments. "Now, it's pushing people deeper into debt or bankruptcy."

Monica and others have argued the benefits of one small but smart consumer protection: a monthly statement that she says would lay out how much was wagered and lost "for those who hide their eyes to the reality."

Meanwhile, her latest column is food for thought as the money rolls in. Sure, we'd love it if all the state's new revenues came from European, Middle Eastern and Asian high-rollers - maybe we could get some of the cash back that we send away for oil or electronics or cheap sneakers.  But some of it is coming from a problem gambler near you.