Upmarket casinos such as you'll find in London or Monaco don't much interest me. Problem with them is they expect you to bowl up dressed like a Penguin, preferably in a chauffeured limo. That's uncomfortable and I don't do limos because they're a swine to park and thoroughly impractical.
Las Vegas was different. Americans don't go in for formal for the most part and that's just fine with me. There it's real difficult to suss out the true high roller, mainly because so many people rent flash cars at the airport and resort limos are ten a penny. And let's face it, when they're past 40 who gives a toss anyway.
Went to the Liberace Museum, which killed a morning and learned that some of his outfits weighed over 100 kilos and cost a small fortune (sadly that closed in 2010). Spent an evening meandering round the Imperial Palace Auto Collection (1), though I didn't have to pay to get in as they had free coupons at my motel. Huge collection, very valuable, great investments.
What I really enjoyed were the all-in buffets. At that time they were virtual giveaways, intended for the paying punter. Great food and I quickly cottoned on that they eat real early in Las Vegas, so after 21.00 hrs and they're relatively quiet. Stacks of room and they had a separate smoking section, so a fag between courses and unlimited coffee... perfect.
In all I spent a total of $5 in slots - in three casinos - mainly because I wanted to see if the movies were accurate. Yes there are people who take slots very seriously indeed. Some favour one machine, others have their special mascot or item of clothing or talisman for luck and they sit there with their plastic container filled with coins until they run out of coins, or win big time, or get tired. Fascinating.
What I remember most about my visit were the people who make Las Vegas tick. I met several British people working in there and it seemed that huge numbers of jobs were there for the taking. One British plumber was quite forthcoming about the work ethic in LV (almost none) and the very serious money he was making, so long as he flew to Canada for a long weekend every three months.
There's a very different LV that caters for these people. Mega cheap motels, inexpensive apartment complexes, low end diners and bars as well as your grocery stores, strip malls and fast food joints. It seemed to me to be a very transient community, one where they'll switch jobs for an extra 10¢ an hour.
I like that free market aspect of things; it wasn't quite the same as I saw in Los Angeles where many youngsters, and more than a few well past their prime, seemed mad keen to get into the movie business. In Las Vegas it was straightforward opportunism - and they were mad keen to grab as much cash as possible. Seems being a car parking valet is highly prized because they can run up staggering tips from those who make a killing at the tables.
I may not like the boring old-world type casinos, but I love the resort type and I love what they do. They create jobs, offer a wide variety of entertainment, pour money into the local community, attract vast numbers of tourists, pay staggering amounts in taxes and - perhaps the most overlooked - they help create secondary services.
I mentioned facilities on offer to employees, however independent travellers have a whole range of motels to chose from, plus car rental, pawnbrokers, day trips and side shows that have nothing to do with the casinos. For my standpoint Las Vegas was a convenient and cheap stop over that was part of a 3,000 mile road trip.
It's this aspect that's overlooked by people who harp on about problem gamblers. In that sense I find it's very similar to the arguments being put forward about minimum pricing on booze. Yes there are people who will go over the top and yes they may go into debt, their marriage may collapse and their children may have to go through the trauma of parental divorce. But I've seen exactly the same results with workaholics, the hugely ambitious, the high achievers, the entrepreneur, those fixated on racing cars or motorcycles, or those who go over the top with their jogging or body building. Indeed any activity, when taken to extreme, can wreak havoc with a marriages, relationships and finances.
Blair understood the benefits of resort casinos and you may recall all the hubbub surrounding their plans to relax the gambling laws and allow a "Super Casino". That was killed by Gordon Brown 11 days after the introduction of the smoking ban, on 12 July 2007 (2).
That caused quite a stir because Manchester had gone to a lot of trouble to make it through the selection processs. They had a suitable site as well as a willing and experienced tycoon who, they told us, would handle the financing and construction himself.
Sol Kerzner (3) is no Mickey Mouse property developer, his Sun City resort in South Africa is massive. His experience with casinos dates to 1994 when he became involved with the colossus that is the Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort in Connecticut. That's hugely successful and Sol still gets a 5% dividend, despite the fact it's now wholly owned by the Mohegan Tribe (4). In short Sol has the contacts and the staff to run a hotel and casino.... very profitably.
The problem was blamed on the House of Lords that rebelled and blocked Blair's initial bill. They went with the problem gambler side of things, listened to the synthetic pressure groups and chose the "what if, maybe" precautionary route. It was said that Brown simply didn't have the guts to take them on.
Blair saw things from a very different perspective and made it quite clear some years later that he was not well chuffed with Brown, using highly emotive terms, like "puritan" and "partisan" (5)!
I have no idea what was said behind closed doors, however I know that the Mohegan Sun Casino and Resort in Connecticut has resisted numerous attempts to make it entirely smoke-free, probably because they know their customers and they've watched what happened in Atlantic City amongst others when they tried it (6). Clearly the lack of anywhere to smoke indoors is an issue. If what I saw at the slot machines in LV is anything to go by, popping outside for a smoke breaks their rhythm and brings them back to the here and now. Not good for a gambler on a roll.
Sol Kerzner started negotiations on the Manchester Super Casino long before the UK smoking bans were even conceived and I strongly suspect that he and his accountants found the figures no longer stacked up. He'd have known that absolutely no exemption would be tolerated and, with vast amounts of money riding on this venture, probably heaved a sigh of relief when Brown did the killing thing.
But the fact remains that these things are a fantastic source of tax revenue, from income tax on doormen to corporation tax on the holding company. Ireland toyed with the idea of their own Super Casino earlier this year, only to see it nailed long before they'd even sorted out who would run it (7)!
However the smoking ban in Spain has delayed construction of the largest casino/resort complex in Europe because the prime backer refuses to move forward until it's given some sort of exemption from the smoking ban. It's 100 times the size of that little bitty thing they fussed over in Manchester. 260,000 jobs, umpteen years to build and all placed in the deep freeze because their Health Minister is adamant there will be no change to their smoking ban (8).
So it seems that there's an impasse between those who know the business of running casinos and those with the power to make it unprofitable for them. The standoff costs jobs and services as well as considerable sums in tax revenue.
And what's sprung up to fill the vacuum in the UK is a sanitized form of gambling, namely the "Lottery". Unfortunately I can't find a definitive list of exactly how many there are in Britain. However all they pay in tax is a paltry Lottery Duty of 12%. That's a far cry from the 50% maximum they charge on gambling duty (9).
Most lotteries were set up to make donations to good causes. These donations are decided by committee and on these committees sit a number of people who have a close involvement with ASH - and they're not above peddling their influence to siphon money to their pet charity.
Most obvious is Lady Elvidge, who happens to be married to Sir John Elvidge. Lady Elvidge much prefers to use her maiden name of Maureen McGinn and, using that name, she became the Chairperson of the Board of ASH Scotland in 2008 (10). But Maureen McGinn also happens to be the Chairperson of the Scotland Committee of the Big Lottery Fund (11).
So, starting in 2009, the Big Lottery sees fit to donate £500,000 to ASH (Scotland) (12). And it just keeps on giving, being one of their "funders" in 2010-11 (13).
Then there's Baroness Finlay. She's a leading light on Stephen Williams Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health (14). She also happens to be the President of ASH Wales and she too has considerable contact with Big Lottery via her patronage of Age Concern (15). Not unsurprisingly Big Lottery made a £865,000 donation to ASH (Wales) in 2012 (16), used in part to help set up "The Filter" (17).
Big Lottery claim there's no back scratching, no wheels within wheels, no nepotism nor corruption of any sort. They claim each donation is judged on its own merits and where there is a conflict of interests, that person doesn't vote! That's an insult to our intelligence: they're incestuous cabals, with committees made up primarily of public servants, many of whom are serial "charity board members". They may or may not be of Common Purpose, or the Freemasons, or Zionists, or Rotarians, but they're all there for a reason. To plunder money from unwitting gamblers into their pet "charities", some of which - like ASH - are fraudulent.
Not content with that there's the Health Lottery (18); they claim the proceeds go to NHS regions. And each region has a vocal Smoking Cessation Unit, and they're all orchestrated by ASH. They're listed, along with about 100 others (19), that allowed their names to be used in support of the "Smokefree Action Coalition".
So millions of people have a wee flutter on the Lottery every day - and there are some very big winners. Nah, not the punter with the staged bottle of champagne, rather it's the sordid little numpties making deals to get smoke free-adverts on buses or to put pressure on hospitals to tear down smoking shelters. They're the ones with good salaries, very hygienic working conditions, leased status cars and index-linked pensions.
And they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, so they offer support to anti-gambling pressure groups. We'll never have a "Super Casino" and the millions who buy lottery tickets every day or week will never know that they've been conned, played like a cheap violin. Very few have any inkling they're helping to finance the very same people who closed their bingo halls, their pubs and their social clubs. And that's exactly what's happening in Spain right now, with the BMJ adding its support to their colleagues in Spain (20).
To my mind this is far more than the misappropriation of funds. It's embezzlement, plain and simple. I very much doubt any corner shop owner who sells Lottery vouchers has the slightest idea that they and their customers are paymasters to ASH, who are at the forefront of hiding tobacco displays. Something small shopkeepers have tried to resist for years.
People who win nothing at the Lottery take some form of comfort from the knowledge their money is supposed to be used for the benefit "good causes". ASH is a pressure group with "a history of disrupting society by way of underhand tactics, propaganda, and secretly colluding in the recruitment of compliant 'scientists' to produce results for payment" (21). No one is under any illusion; donations to ASH is an abuse of privilege, a betrayal of trust, and it's theft - by people in a different social and economic class to themselves.
They may speak with expensive accents and they may have all the social graces as well as contacts in high places, but they're no different to any other embezzler; they steal by deception and that's a crime. A white collar crime maybe, but a crime nonetheless. Complete transparency, published minutes, audited accounts, three year maximum terms for all committee members and a verified list of all beneficiaries, together with the names of their sponsors would all help. As would a far higher level of duty than the pathetic 12% Lottery Duty the government gets (20% sounds reasonable).
It's encouraging that others have noted the negative impact many NGO's have on society, as this Institute of Economic Affairs article highlights (22).
However there is one tiny thing that may be happening. Had a chat with the person at the tobacco cum lottery counter of a very large supermarket. She was bemoaning the fact she now has far too much time on her hands because sales of tobacco products have nose dived since they went behind flaps. I suggested she'd still have all the people who buy lottery tickets, however it seems many of her sales came from impulse purchases by people who used to buy cigarettes.
Own goal! Fair made my day!