The lottery’s no longer the only game in town, at least in many towns across North Carolina. Recent challenges to laws regulating video poker and sneaky ways of skirting the law have led to a boom in “sweepstakes” outlets that often masquerade as Internet cafes.

Unlike the typical Internet cafe where most users check email, do research or update their Facebook pages, visitors to the sweepstakes parlors spend most of their time playing games that they hope will win money.

The new gambling houses skirt the law by selling what is technically a legitimate product – prepaid phone cards or Internet time cards – but the cards are then used to buy time on video gambling machines, where the user can win prizes ranging from more Internet time to wads of cash. My understanding is that the payouts are random rather than based on whatever skill it takes to play poker with a software program, thus sidestepping laws governing video poker.

Proponents of the practice say it’s no different than buying a Coke that has a code printed under the bottle cap, allowing the purchaser to visit Coke’s Web site, punch in the code and see if he or she has won a prize. Or they cite games offered by fast-food franchises like McDonalds, where the purchase of food comes with a Monopoly token that could be worth real money.

I see the point, but I also see a difference. I don’t know anyone who buys soft drinks, one after the other, for the express purpose of trying to win a rare cash prize. And while some people may visit McDonald’s more often in hopes of collecting all the Monopoly pieces (that’s the idea, after all), they still get a tangible food item along with the game piece.

With the new sweepstakes gaming parlors, one might practically be able to use the prepaid Internet card to check e-mail, and operators tout the entertainment value of the games, but the obvious truth is that most purchasers plunk their money down in hopes of winning a jackpot.

In essence, the games are no different than buying a lottery scratch-off card, except that users have to go online to see if they win, and the state doesn’t get a cut of the profits.

An added danger is that, in a room full of “legal” gaming machines, it would be easy for unscrupulous operators to sneak in a few machines that go over the legal line and rob users of even more grocery money.

I personally wish authorities could find a way to shut down all gambling outlets, including the lottery, because they take advantage of the poor and sell hope to desperate people who aren’t good at math.

If they can’t shut them down, they should at least find ways to regulate them closely and tax them heavily so operators wouldn’t make such fat profits and would be less inclined to get into the business.

If something isn’t done, North Carolina will soon be swamped with tacky gambling houses that not only pollute the landscape but exploit human frailty. Our residents deserve better than that.

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.

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