The Darby Borough priest sent to prison for embezzling more than a half-million dollars to help fuel his gambling habit raises questions about the role of his two co-conspirators: the casinos and the state.
No doubt Msgr. William A. Dombrow is responsible for his actions and will serve his time in prison. But the casinos and lawmakers in Harrisburg share some responsibility for enabling the gambling addiction of Dombrow and thousands of others like him.
It is not enough to advertise gambling hotlines and issue canned statements telling customers to gamble responsibly. Nor is it enough to set aside a paltry .002 percent of casino revenues to treat gambling addicts.
The jobs and tax revenue generated by casinos come at a cost.
One national study found that living within 10 miles of a casino increases the odds of a person’s becoming a problem gambler by 90 percent. Other studies have found that anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of casino revenues come from problem gamblers.
A casino executive at Parx once famously said at an industry conference that most of its customers visit 200 times a year, or an average of four times a week. An executive at the Harrah’s casino in Chester – which Dombrow frequented – said a “segment” of its customers came six times a week.
In short, the success of Pennsylvania’s casinos depends in large measure on repeat and problem gamblers. And unlike Las Vegas, which attracts tourists from all over, the casinos here cater mainly to locals who visit again and again. (On the other hand, Nevada ranks first in gambling addiction.)
Casinos are complicit. They aggressively market to gamblers by emailing them free-play vouchers, food coupons and other incentives to get them to keep coming back. In fact, casinos can track gamblers’ activity through reward cards many plug into slot machines, which generate most of the revenue.
Studies show modern slot machines are designed to addict gamblers. Indeed, the casino industry spends lots of time and money trying to influence consumers’ behavior through technology and the design of casinos — down to the seats, carpet and layout.
The state plays a role in pushing more gambling as well. State lawmakers – led by former Gov. Ed Rendell – legalized slots in 2004. Six years later, the state added table games.
In October, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved a major expansion of gambling by allowing gambling online and in airports, bars and truck stops as well as smaller “satellite” casinos.
Since the state taxes slot machine revenue at 55 percent, Harrisburg could be considered a majority partner in the casinos. As such, lawmakers have a duty to look out for the safety and welfare of residents, and not just maximize tax revenues.
In addition to stripping wealth from residents, casinos (and the lottery) create an unaccounted social cost seen in addicts like Dombrow, who stole life insurance funds from dead priests to gamble at Harrah’s.
Thanks to the efforts of the state, Pennsylvania is second only to Nevada in casino gambling. Lawmakers need to take more responsibility for preventing and treating the gambling addiction they help enable.