Americans are likely to be lining up to buy Powerball tickets in advance of Monday’s $522 million drawing, after no one won the top prize (for the 37th consecutive time!) on Saturday.
But for Adam Osmond, any jackpot fervor only serves as a reminder of the dark side of lotteries.
Osmond, a Connecticut resident, gave up buying lottery tickets more than a decade ago after losing around $1 million on various games, be they scratch-offs or drawings. He said his addiction cost him his business (he owned two gas stations), his home and nearly any semblance of a normal life.
“When you talk about hitting bottom, I hit the worst of bottom,” says Osmond, who sought treatment for his addiction. Today, he works as an accountant for Connecticut’s housing department and runs marathons and other races in his free time.
Osmond’s story may be an extreme one, but it’s not entirely unique. Experts say that as state lotteries have surged in popularity — combined sales have grown from around $59 billion in 2010 to nearly $90 billion in 2020 — so have the number of Americans who are addicted to playing the games.
The problem is only compounded when there’s a big jackpot, experts add. Such events inevitably result in lots of news coverage and feed the idea that playing the lottery is a fun, safe pastime. And that’s in spite of the fact the odds of earning the top prize are one in 292.2 million, meaning you have a greater chance of becoming a movie star or being killed by a bee sting.
As Americans are enticed to buy tickets with the possibility, however remote, of winning a life-changing sum, there’s always the risk that some will become hooked on the lottery, say experts. And those who are already addicted may find themselves further incentivized to play.
Overall, around 2 million U.S. adults have a severe addiction to gambling, while another 4 to 6 million have a mild or moderate problem, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling .
The jackpot mania can also cause those in recovery from a gambling addiction to relapse, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the national council. Either way, he says, lottery fever is a destructive force.
“It normalizes gambling,” he says.
Osmond’s story speaks to how addiction can spiral out of control. Born in Somalia, Osmond moved to this country more than 35 years ago and attended college. He began playing the lottery sporadically — “A dollar here or there,” he says — but when he went into the gas-station business, he was able to buy tickets quickly and easily at the stores he owned and his problems started.
Osmond notes that he hit it big on more than one occasion, but that only fed his addiction. At some point around 15 years ago, he won a $50,000 prize on a drawing game. “I put the whole thing back” into more tickets, Osmond recalls. Naturally, he lost.
Osmond credits running as being what saved him from gambling — it served as a way for him to channel his energy positively, he says. He has competed in more than 500 races, including several marathons. He recently ran the New York City Marathon for the first time.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of lotteries, Osmond says, is their popularity among the poor — meaning the people who can least afford to gamble. It’s a point that has been cited in much research, with one study noting that those who earn less than $10,000 annually spend $597 (or about 6% of their income) on the lottery.
Ultimately, Osmond and others fear the problem won’t go away easily, particularly because states are introducing more ways to play the lottery. Indeed, Powerball, a game that is offered in 45 states and run through a multi-state association, added a third night of drawings to its weekly schedule in August.
Osmond considers himself fortunate in being able to break the cycle of his lottery addiction. And it’s very much a cycle, he says: “Anytime you lose, you want to keep playing to get your money back.”