BOSTON – Tort lawyers have another target in their sights after an extremely successful campaign against the tobacco industry: casinos.
Public health advocates and their litigators say compulsive gambling is a crisis that has reached epidemic proportions and something must be done to stop casinos from injuring the many addicts who look to them to feed their roughly $50 billion a year habit.
"It's very similar to the drive to snort coke or smoke crack. It's that pressing, that urgent," said Henry Lesieur, a gambling treatment therapist.
"There's a huge cost to communities, there's a huge cost to individuals, particularly to families of compulsive gamblers," said Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, a citizens group that promotes government accountability.
Harshbarger is also the former attorney general of Massachusetts who launched the tobacco industry lawsuits. In the biggest class-action settlement in history, tobacco companies agreed to pay 48 states $246 billion in damages.
Now, Harshbarger is ready to tackle gambling, which he calls the next public health crisis. He said casinos could hold a huge potential payout to help recovery efforts for addicts.
"If you're going to lure people to come, and families to come, you need to deal with the reality that this introduces potential addiction problems," he said.
But personal responsibility advocates say gamblers know they're engaging in high-risk behavior. And critics say suing the casinos is less about collecting damages for compulsive gamblers and more about lawyers looking for their own jackpot.
"Increasingly we have an entrepreneurial plaintiff bar that comes up with the idea of what industry they want to sue and then goes looking for a client," said Walter K. Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Olson says lawyers have embarked on a strategy in which they first rile up the public about an issue then "go out and look for an industry that you can demonize."
Harshbarger calls that kind of thinking backward.
"To blame lawyers who bring that issue to public attention and perhaps get contingent fees as a result is shooting the messenger," he said.
Policy experts say tobacco and gambling are just the beginning of a wave of litigation against big industry. They predict alcohol and fast food are next, then anything with the potential to spin a compulsion into gold.