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Should Casinos Court Senior Citizens?

State gaming commissions, which regulate casinos, have an ethical obligation to crack down on predatory marketing to the elderly. But so far, most don’t seem interested.

Q. My mother, who lives in a retirement community, is spending a lot of time at a nearby casino, which is aggressively courting her and her friends with all sorts of freebies. She isn’t wealthy, and when I ask about her gambling losses, she won’t say much—but insists that the casino trips are fun for a lonely widow. What can be done about the casino’s targeting of these seniors?

A. The gambling industry knows that people older than 50 make up almost half of their total visitors, and retirees are able to come to casinos during slack daytime hours, when working adults can’t. Casino owners observe that gambling is legal and that these are consenting adults who seem to enjoy being there. So their marketing to seniors is legal, and that includes free transportation, meals, rooms and VIP hosts who welcome them warmly and encourage them to play more.

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But is it ethical? No. Many seniors, like gamblers of all ages, can’t afford their losses and hide them from family members. And medical research has shown that cognitive changes common in the aging brain—and also some medicines taken by the elderly—make them vulnerable to the stimuli of electronic slot machines, which are programmed to keep a player involved until his or her money is exhausted (see “The Casino Trap” at AARP.org).

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State gaming commissions, which regulate casinos, have an ethical obligation to crack down on predatory marketing to the elderly. But so far, most don’t seem interested. Regulators should prohibit casinos from offering free senior shuttles; if they don’t, then operators of private retirement homes and public senior-citizen social centers should stop allowing the shuttles to pick up seniors at those locations.

Investment advisers have a legal obligation to determine the financial means and experience of every new customer and to be on the lookout for inappropriate trading behavior. Casinos should have a similar “duty of care” obligation toward their customers, establishing gambling limits in advance and/or spotting and barring compulsive gamblers.

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