Vice Squad
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Pushing Poker Skills

In part because many anti-gambling laws refer to "games of chance," devotees of poker often try to convince the world that theirs is a game of skill. (Though I favor legal gambling, I am not sure I am convinced of this claim as a legal argument.) At any rate, poker surely involves decisionmaking under uncertainty, and it might even be an effective vehicle for teaching such skills or for acquiring them in a form that can translate into other domains. For instance, the idea that often the best thing to do is to exit a hand early, that sunk costs are sunk, and that playing hunches as opposed to probabilities is not a surefire way to riches, all could come in useful in a broad array of situations -- and then there is the whole problem of what appears to me to be widespread misunderstanding of probabilistic reasoning.

Recently a Harvard law professor of some renown has been instrumental in establishing the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society. You can watch the first meeting of the Harvard Law School chapter here. The editor of Reason magazine is as pro legal vice as is Vice Squad (probably even more so), but he is dismayed that the bid for poker legality is couched in its status as a game of skill, that somehow the argument has to be made with respect to poker's virtues.

Meanwhile, a famous poker player, Annie Duke, has joined the board of the Decision Education Foundation. Who could be better? After all, "The mission of the Decision Education Foundation is to improve the lives of young people by teaching them how to make better decisions." Poker is awash in favorable publicity, it seems -- well, except for that embarrassing cheating scandal at a Costa Rica-based internet poker site.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Marijuana Freakout

The Freakonomics blog provides a public service today in the form of a debate concerning whether marijuana should be legalized. The Freaky final tally is three "yeas" and two "nays", plus some 60 comments or so. Pete goes the extra mile to point out the fundamental flaws in the "nay" arguments. To my mind, the "nay" position as articulated on the Freakonomics blog comes pretty close to the following pseudo-syllogism: (1) Marijuana is illegal; (2) marijuana is dangerous; (3) therefore, marijuana should be illegal. The naysayers don't really seem all that comfortable with actually punishing those dangerous pot users severely, though. Why not? After all, marijuana is illegal, marijuana is...

Dr. Robert L. DuPont's "nay" position starts out:
Legalization of alcohol would solve the alcohol problem the way legalizing speeding would solve the speeding problem: it would remove the legal inhibition of a dangerous behavior, and thereby encourage the behavior.
Oh, I did take the liberty of replacing his use of the word "marijuana" with "alcohol." I was led to this substitution out of hope. Dr. DuPont's famous namesake, Pierre du Pont, supported the Eighteenth amendment that ushered national alcohol Prohibition into the US. His firm, the Du Pont Company, manufactured munitions, and for safety reasons Du Pont forbade its workers from drinking. (Actually, it was only one of his firms; the remarkable Pierre had been president of both Du Pont and, later, General Motors.) But Pierre du Pont saw the effects of Prohibition, and following the lead of two of his brothers, became active -- indeed, all-but-essential -- in repealing the 18th Amendment; here's a photo of the dangerous radical, who had untold explosives at his disposal! How about it, Dr. DuPont? Any chance of a similar conversion?

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Monday, October 29, 2007

The process that removes caffeine from coffee -- to produce some sort of strange concoction known as "decaffeinated coffee" -- is imperfect, and in practice, it seems, highly variable. This is more than just a nuisance, as some people really shouldn't consume caffeine for health reasons, but they might have a cup of decaf, only to find that they consumed a fair dose of the addictive, psychoactive drug. Consumer Reports recently bought and tested 36 small cups of coffee. The results:
More than half of our decafs had less than 5 mg of caffeine, but some had quite a bit more. One of the six cups from Dunkin' Donuts had 32 mg; one from Seattle's Best had 29 mg; and one from Starbucks had 21 mg. Levels of caffeine in the decaffeinated coffees we tested varied within chains, but in our sample, McDonald's decaf consistently had less than 5 mg.
While the caffeine levels in caffeinated coffee vary quite a bit too, I feel as if the distress suffered by those who order regular but receive decaffeinated coffee has been underappreciated.

A story on the Consumer Reports test in the New York Times has been causing a hullabaloo among crazed coffee drinkers and their deluded decaffeinated brethren. Incidentally, Consumer Reports has gone all ga-ga over McDonald's caffeinated coffee in the past. (OK, I am a bit bitter -- ha! -- because I think I am the only person who preferred McD's old coffee to their newish "Premium". Nor am I excited over this prospect.)

Thanks to Alcohol and Drugs History Society for pointers to some of the links; they also link to an article that explains how coffee won the Civil War, if I misread things correctly.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007
Subsidize Safer Cigarettes?

A friend of Vice Squad brought our attention to "A Two-Cigarette Society," an op-ed by David G. Adams in last Monday's New York Times. The idea is to prohibit the sale of "regular" cigarettes to youths, perhaps those under 21. But cigarettes that have very low levels of nicotine would be available at an earlier age. The motivation is harm reduction: don't try to keep older teens from smoking, but try to guide their smoking in a direction that is not very harmful. Presumably the negligible amounts of nicotine in the "youth" cigarettes would not stoke addiction, so that when the youthful smokers want to quit -- and the vast majority of habitual smokers say they want to quit -- they will be able to do so easily. (The author even sees the low-nicotine cigarette as a stepping stone to eventual prohibition of the fully nicotinized version.) One related idea that we could implement without the rest of the two-cigarette solution would be to base cigarette excise taxes on nicotine content, to encourage the production and consumption of lower-nicotine varieties. And then there is snus, of course, as a complementary form of tobacco harm reduction.

The two-cigarette proposal motivated two letters, published in today's Times, in response. The first letter recapitulates the usual zero tolerance v. harm reduction debate: the two-cigarette proposal represents "one of the worst ideas I have heard in a long time;" the letter writer's alternative: "Let’s continue focusing our resources on gradually, but finally, creating a no-cigarette society."

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Saturday, October 27, 2007
Alcohol Possession During Alcohol Prohibition

Today is the 88th anniversary of the Volstead Act, the piece of legislation that fleshed out the details of what the 18th Amendment, the one that ushered in US national alcohol Prohibition, would mean in practice. The amendment itself outlawed manufacture, sale, transport, import, and export of "intoxicating liquors" for "beverage purposes". (What, possession and purchase not banned?; they just didn't know how to run a prohibition in those days.) The Act could have allowed beer and even wine to be exempt from Prohibition, but chose instead the "bone dry" standard of .5 of one percent alcohol content as the limit of what did not qualify as an intoxicating liquor. The beverage purposes clause in the Amendment was necessary to exempt sacramental, medicinal, and industrial alcohol. Cider of the sweet variety was exempt as was fruit juice, paving the way for legal hard cider and home wine production during Prohibition via court interpretation.

The Volstead Act actually did add "possession" to the prohibited activities -- see Title II, Section 3. This was followed by a restriction on the issuing of search warrants for private homes, however (Title II, Section 25): "No search warrant shall issue to search any private dwelling occupied as such unless it is being used for the unlawful sale of intoxicating liquor, or unless it is in part used for some business purposes...." This was followed (Title II, Section 33) by a further assurance that homes would be more-or-less off-limits to Prohibition agents: "But it shall not be unlawful to possess liquors in one's private dwelling while the same is occupied and used by him as his dwelling only and such liquor need not be reported, provided such liquors are for use only for the personal consumption of the owner thereof and his family residing in such dwelling and of his bona fide guests when entertained by him therein..."

Incidentally, it is also the 88th anniversary of President Wilson's veto of the Volstead Act -- within a few hours, his veto was overridden.

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Friday, October 26, 2007
Bonfire of the Vanities, Indiana Style

What is it about goods associated with vice that makes authorities of various sorts want to destroy those goods, in public or with witnesses, if possible? Bonfires in Pakistan, crushing by a "double-roller" in Oregon -- and today, we learn that an Indiana judge has sentenced a man convicted of a gambling crime to pay some restitution. Oh, and to watch as the 38 gambling machines that were taken from his nightclub are destroyed, of course.

Meanwhile, it is a legal gambling machine that has a New Mexico man in a bit of a lather, understandably. The nickel-slot machine announced that he had won a jackpot worth more than one and a half million dollars. Casino authorities soon informed him, however, that he hadn't really won. The machine was just kidding, or rather, malfunctioning, and the rule written right there on the machine says that if the machine kids, winnings are voided. The disappointed gambling man is not folding yet; he is suing, but the case is complicated by the fact that New Mexico is unlikely to have jurisdiction, as the dodgy slot machine is located on a Native American reservation. [Thanks to Overlawyered for the pointer.]

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Thursday, October 25, 2007
Phoenix Obscenity Verdict

[Standard disclaimer: the links in this post are not safe for work.] First, all the humans whom the feds originally charged with obscenity offenses had charges dropped or were found innocent before the jury was called upon to decide their fate. The only parties left on trial, therefore, were two corporations. The original charges concerned four DVDs, but one of those was dropped from the case, too. So in the Incredible Shrinking Porn case, the jury split on the remaining charges: two of the DVDs were not obscene, the jury said, and one was. Whew -- at least the feds got something. But they might even lose this upon appeal, when the judge's decision not to allow in evidence that similar DVDs were sold at numerous places in the Phoenix area -- and hence might not really violate those community standards -- might be re-assessed.

What a waste of time and money this whole prosecution has been. We can be thankful that no one has gone to jail, which not only is extremely unpleasant for those involved but sentences the taxpayers to forking over still more resources to save Phoenix from the likes of Gag Factor 18. We did manage to learn from the trial, however, that Filthy Things 6 and American Bukakke 13 are not legally obscene in Phoenix.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Mischievous Aaland

Never trust an archipelago. Aaland is an autonomous part of Finland that is culturally and linguistically Swedish. Smokeless tobacco snus can be sold legally in Sweden, but nowhere else in the European Union -- and Finland, including semi-autonomous Aaland, is part of the EU. Ferries out of Aaland had been selling snus, so the EU took the semi-Swedish snus-sellers to court, leading Vice Squad to speculate that Aaland might choose to leave the EU rather than give up snus. Well, Aaland lost the court case, but dropped its talk of EU secession. Vice Squad was duped into thinking that Aaland had fallen into line, and even committed that view to print. But tonight we learn that Aaland hasn't actually bothered to comply with the court order by curtailing snus sales. The EU is playing hardball: "The European Commission decided on Tuesday to impose a significant fine on the province." The fine is at 2 million euros, and rising, and that semi-autonomous status also applies to EU fines, for which Aaland, and not Finland more generally, is responsible.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007
The Incredible Shrinking Obscenity Trial

Recall that trial for distributing dirty DVDS that got underway in Phoenix last week? It started with three defendants, but one had to be jettisoned in the interest of pursuing the case against the other two. A second defendant (link not work safe) had charges dismissed today -- the judge ruled that there was essentially no evidence that his job would have provided him with knowledge of the content of the challenged videos. Hard to know how a jury will react to having defendants and their lawyers regularly disappearing.

Incidentally, an unwillingness to pursue this obscenity case may have played a role in costing one of those famously fired US attorneys his job.

Update: [Note: Links that follow are not work safe] Oops, almost missed the really important story for the porn industry: a federal appeals court in the 6th district has declared the record-keeping requirements for adult businesses, the so-called 2257 requirements, to be overbroad and thus unconstitutional. (These are the regulations that cost 'Girls Gone Wild' a couple million dollars.) The regulations are intended to ensure that adult entertainers are at least 18-years old, but porn producers have been quite vocal in their complaints that the requirements are too demanding. It seems that the 6th district agrees.


The BBC Embraces Some Controversial Topics

A friend of Vice Squad sends us a pointer to this BBC article on disabled people, some of whom have very limited options for 'normal' romantic relationships, paying to have sex with prostitutes. The article focuses on one 25-year-old disabled British man who went to a legal Spanish brothel for sex. Later, he returned with two other disabled men, and BBC cameras (funded by the taxes paid by television owners in Britain) came along. The disabled apparently tend to favor the legalisation of prostitution, if one survey referred to in the article can be believed:
A survey for the Disability Now website in 2005 suggested that 75% of disabled people believed in the legalisation of prostitution, with 62.5% of men and 19.2% of women saying they would use trained sex workers. It's a situation that exists in the Netherlands where a voluntary group provides just such a service for disabled people. Most clients pay for it themselves but some local authorities subsidise the service.
Recall that prostitution per se is already legal in Britain, though associated activities such as solicitation are illegal; the Netherlands has even more liberal laws regarding prostitution.

The article gives time to people who do not support legal prostitution for the disabled or for anyone else, and it has attracted many interesting comments, also on both sides of the issue.

Speaking of interesting uses for the tv tax revenues, the BBC is showing "Fanny Hill," a two-hour adaptation of the famous 18th-century erotic (or indecent, if you prefer) novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, by John Cleland. The book was banned in both Britain and the colonies (er, the US) for more than 200 years after it first appeared. But Cleland's novel has been available legally in Britain since 1970, and is now adapted for publicly-financed tv!

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Monday, October 22, 2007
More on Lotteries for the Times

The New York Times on Sunday added its third installment to its series on the state lotteries. This time we learned a lot about the two companies that dominate the provision of instant tickets, online games, and other lottery paraphernalia in the US. The companies operate globally and lobby to promote lotteries, but to be honest, this 5-webpage third installment began to run up against my blogging-disabled attention span; your mileage may vary. At any rate, the series and the webpage extras are, collectively, a great place to learn about US state lotteries.

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A Shift for Vegas: Legal Prostitution is Being Advertised

Back in July, a federal judge struck down a Nevada state law that prevented the legal brothels (located in rural counties) from advertising in Nevada's two most populous counties, which contain Las Vegas and Reno and in which brothel prostitution is not permitted as a matter of state law. I think that the lawsuit was short-sighted on the part of brothel owners, and that voluminous or particularly provocative ads will increase pressure to end the state acceptance of legal prostitution in rural counties. But so far, it seems, the ads are discreet -- they are targeted away from the good people residing in Las Vegas, and aimed instead at tourists and those dodgy alternative types. The risque' ads come from the Vegas strip clubs, apparently.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007
Ignition Interlocks

Today's New York Times includes an article on automobile ignition interlocks, those devices that are designed to prevent a car from starting if the driver is alcohol impaired. The theme of the article is that technology has not developed to the point where it would make sense to require interlocks for all cars, as opposed to only the rides of drivers who have been convicted of drunk driving.

The interlock devices that are sometimes court-mandated cost about $125 to install, plus monthly maintenance fees of $60 to $75, according to the article. How do they work?

To start a car, the driver must puff a breath into the unit. To avoid cheating, the breath puff is measured and must be given in a uniquely identifiable way that would be hard for a person who is not the driver to duplicate. Inside the unit, a small fuel cell converts any alcohol into electrical energy, which is measured and recorded. If no alcohol is detected, the driver can start the car. If alcohol is detected, the system turns off the power to the ignition.

The breath puff isn’t just for starting cars. While driving, the driver must periodically blow into the system to keep the car running. Typically, the data is downloaded every 30 days and is available to probation officers and court officials.

A related article talks about options for drivers who want to test their own blood alcohol content before they get behind the wheel. That article notes that these unofficial tests need not be accurate, but fails to note that the accuracy of police-administered breathalyzers also is highly questionable -- for evidence, read some of the posts (such as this one) at DUI Blog.

Vice Squad checks in on ignition interlocks from time to time.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007
Federal Obscenity Trial in Phoenix

The FBI ordered some sexually-explicit DVDs from a website; the DVDs were duly shipped from Phoenix to Virginia. The Phoenix distributors are now on trial for four of the DVDs, which the government maintains are obscene. Adult Video News (not safe for work!) has been providing accounts of the trial, and I have to say, they are fascinating. The report from October 17 (not work safe, remember) charts the jury selection last Tuesday -- 12 jurors and three alternates, who had to be sufficiently familiar with Phoenix at the time of the DVD mailings to be credible judges of what would violate Phoenix community standards, which are key to the Miller test that provides standards for what qualifies as obscene. One potential juror, a libertarian, asserted his belief that jurors were allowed to judge the facts as well as the law, but agreed that he could follow the judge's instructions. One potential juror claimed that she would be unable to watch the videos at issue. The same day also saw the dismissal of all charges against the producer of the DVDs, who was accused of sending them to the Phoenix store that allegedly sent them on to Virginia -- the government needs his testimony about the origin of the DVDS in their case against the retailers, but with charges pending against him, he could withhold that testimony on the grounds that it would amount to compelled self-incrimination. Whew. The last hour of Tuesday's courtroom activity was devoted to watching part of one of the four DVDs. Each of the jurors (and the judge) has their own personal monitor; there's also a large screen version for all the spectators. (Didn't a defendant in another federal obscenity case memorably note that the only people who would be forced to watch his videos would be the jurors in his trial?)

If anything, things got more interesting on Thursday (here's AVN's October 18 report). It was learned that the reason that the DVDs were ordered via the Phoenix retailer as opposed to the California-based producer is good old-fashioned forum-shopping: the feds did not want to try an obscenity case in LA County. The display of the videos continued, and it seems as if the four DVDs have to be shown in their entirety at the trial: another element of the Miller test is that two of the three conditions that must be met for a work to be legally obscene involve the work "being considered as a whole." These hardcore DVDs have "extra" segments that might take some of the edge off the nastiness that the feds hope will shock the Phoenix jury into a conviction. Here's the description (some fairly explicit language ahead) from AVN's correspondent, Mark Kernes:
Among other things, the extras showed Audrey and Otto preparing for their scene, setting up the giant plastic dildo that would be shoved up her ass, discussing how the d.p. with Rick would be choreographed, and perhaps most importantly, letting the audience know that she and Otto were married. They showed director Jim Powers relating his conception of the video as a whole, explaining how the Cindy Crawford scene might seem familiar because it was essentially a restaging of a scene from Filthy Things 1 which Powers felt hadn't come off just as he'd planned, so he wanted to try it again. They showed him discussing the impending sex with various performers, giving suggestions as to how it should be staged, and expanding the audience's point of view to show some of what goes on behind the scenes as the sex is being performed for the camera. In all, they put an artistic frame around the entire production ... and if it's art, it's not obscene.
On the third day, the jury sent a note to the judge, apparently asking if they had to watch all four DVDs in their entirety. Th trial resumes on Tuesday.


Friday, October 19, 2007
Dying to Work?

People in some professions tend to live longer than people in other professions. This might be because some jobs attract people with characteristics that also affect lifespan, or because the jobs (including pay and lifestyle) themselves might alter how long someone will live. A study to be released next week of 76 of the FTSE-100 firms -- the 100 largest firms listed on the London Stock Exchange -- indicates that people who work for tobacco and alcohol firms are among the shortest lived workers, according to this Financial Times article: "Among the bottom six firms – five... are tobacco and or drinks-related businesses."The firm in the study with the lowest worker life expectancy is Whitbread, which started as a brewery in 1742 but no longer makes its own beer and is more in the hotel/restaurant/coffee business now, though many of its restaurants are pub-style. According to the FT article, "Whitbread declined to comment, but insiders said they thought the shorter mortality could be attributable to the number of brewers and publicans the company used to employ." (I guess the short lifespan of publicans is supposed to be obvious?) Incidentally, a lower life expectancy for a firm, everything else equal, translates into smaller pension payments.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007
Iowa Lottery Contretemps

On October 7, the New York Times initiated a series on state lotteries in the US. Vice Squad noted at that time that the data from the Times's interactive map had some weird entries for Iowa. On October 14, the Times published the second installment of the series, about privatization of state lotteries. The odd Iowa numbers, which indicate very high administrative expenses (relative to lottery revenues), seem to be connected with a sort of quasi-privatization -- and one that should serve as a warning to other states.

The story is nicely told in "The Iowa Lottery's TouchPlay Debacle," an article by Keith C. Miller that appeared in Volume 11, number 2 of the Gaming Law Review. While the Iowa lottery has been around for more than two decades, it was only in 2003 that lottery operations were moved from the state fiscal authorities to the nonprofit "Iowa Lottery Authority," which adopted a corporate outlook and aimed at increasing profits. Earlier, in 2002, the Iowa legislature had asked the Lottery to look into the prospects for dispensing lottery tickets via terminals with video screens. By April 2004, such video terminals were available on a statewide basis -- but the numbers were small, and the terminals tended to be placed in bars. In January, 2005, 422 of the machines -- known as TouchPlay -- were available across the state.

What do these machines actually look like? Well, as Vice Squad has noted before, it is possible for clever designers to arrange games that fall under the legal definition of bingo or lotteries nevertheless to look and play almost identically to slot machines -- and this was what the TouchPlay machines did. (They apparently had much lower rates of return than actual slot machines in Iowa, however, which are regulated to return at least 80 percent of bets on average.) So the adoption of video terminals by the state lottery looked a lot like spreading slot machines into new, non-casino locales. This might have been tolerated, except that those 422 machines of January 2005 suddenly morphed into 4,876 machines one year later (with some 4,000 more ordered); the machines often were located in grocery stores and other places where kids were a standard part of the clientèle. Iowans rebelled against the stealth invasion of slots into their daily lives, the legislature listened, and a ban on TouchPlay machines commenced on May 4, 2006. Why the high administrative costs? Presumably because the Lottery had to rely on contracts with private companies to provide the machines and ancillary services, and those firms needed to receive payment -- but this is just a guess.

The Performance Report of the Iowa Lottery Authority for fiscal year 2006 (July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006) is available online (13-page pdf here), and it appears to be the source for the Times's Iowa lottery data. Here's an understated bullet point from page 1: "Net revenue from TouchPlay machines totaled over $121.4 million in fiscal year 2006, compared to $6.4 million in fiscal year 2005. The TouchPlay program was ended in May 2006." On page 5, we learn that the more than $121 million in TouchPlay revenue compared with the performance target of, er, $17 million -- a piece of Stakhanovite plan overfulfillment.

As for state lottery privatizations, Miller's article contains (page 96) an implicit warning, based on the change in lottery oversight to a non-profit organization charged with being more businesslike than the state entity that preceded it: "One might conclude that the 'depoliticization,' of the Lottery contributed to a climate of lax legislative oversight, and that the TouchPlay controversy was an outgrowth of this environment."

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Bingo on Board

What diversions are there to pass the time on a US Navy warship? On the USS Kearsarge, you might play Bingo over shipboard closed-circuit television, according to this article in Stars and Stripes. You buy your gamecards in advance, and then you can play from wherever there's a tv on which you can watch the "action". There is something to be said for situating yourself close to the onboard television studio, though, because if two or more sailors achieve Bingo simultaneously, the first one to the studio wins the prize, which can range up to $50.

Is it legal for members of the US military to gamble when they are on a ship outside of the US territorial waters? I suppose so -- but you might have trouble if you are a noncommissioned or petty officer and gamble with a subordinate. The Stars and Stripes article makes a passing reference to shipboard "high stakes poker parties." Hmmm. The article also notes that special debit-style cards obviate the need to carry cash when you are on Navy vessels, even to pay your gambling losses.

Most Vice Squad Bingo fascination is with how the smoking ban has hurt British bingo halls. The latest British Bingo news is an intra-family dispute over how to split Bingo winnings -- of a cool one million pounds. This is not your grandmum's Bingo.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Redfining Success Downwards on British Childhood Obesity

"By 2020, we aim to reduce the proportion of overweight and obese children to 2000 levels." That's the British public health minister, as quoted in the Guardian. The earlier goal was to eliminate child obesity by 2010, so this is a rather severe adjustment. The issue is in the news because of the release of a report based on a two-year study. Among the policy proposals -- see the list on the sidebar of this Financial Times article -- is a tax calibrated to the fat content of food. I don't have a principled objection to such fat taxes, but I am pretty skeptical about their ability to function well in practice.

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The Withering Away of Obscenity Prosecutions

Obscenity laws in the US have not changed much in the US in the past few decades. Yet prosecutions for adult obscenity offenses have fallen off considerably, to the point that hardcore (but not extreme hardcore) porn of the non-broadcast variety seems to be de facto legal in the US. Tim Wu, writing in Slate, asks what has led to this informal decriminalization. Wu's answer: was a combined product, over decades, of the decisions of hundreds of prosecutors, FCC officials, FBI agents, and police officers—all of whom decided they had better things to do than chase around pornographers the way they chase murderers. Their consensus—that normal pornography just isn't harmful in the sense that, say, drugs are—has driven the current law more so than any official enactment.
Kansas, of course, is continuing to buck the trend.

Professor Wu first received (implicit) mention in Vice Squad with his speculation that WTO rules might lead to marijuana legalization; the first explicit Vice Squad notice came in regard to his co-authored book on the internet.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007
State "Sales" of Lotteries

Last week Vice Squad noted a new series of articles from the New York Times on state lotteries. Today brought the second installment in the series, this one focusing on the possibility that states will sell (actually, in all likelihood, lease long-term) their lottery operations to private companies. The article details the extent to which these privatizations are being pushed by Wall Street investment banks, which figure to make out big-time in the course of lottery lease deals. Newcomers to politics will be surprised to learn that some of the representatives of the Wall Street firms that are highlighting privatization are, coincidentally, former high-ranking government officials, sometimes in the very states they are targeting.

The problem, of course, is that the lotteries are worth more (and the fees for the deals are commensurately higher) the more revenues that they can generate in the future. But as with all vices, revenue maximization alone does not conduce to the public welfare. The Times quotes Vice Squad regular Phil Cook: “'In principle, it’s possible to regulate the lottery, even if it’s privately run,' he says. 'But that’s going to require sustained will power on the part of state governments, and whether they are going to have that in practice is an open question.'”

There are two points that aren't really brought up in the Times article, but which I think are important. First, people tire of lotteries, and so maintaining or increasing revenues in the long-run requires the introduction of new games, new forms of ticket distribution, and innovative marketing angles; how these issues will be handled will be key to the social and revenue effects of any long-term privatization. Second, the length of the lease is obviously of paramount importance. I think that there is something to be said for short-term leases, on the order of the seven-to-ten years that have been employed in Britain. These relatively short lease terms mean that private lottery operators will be leery of conducting their operations in ways that raise public concerns, because visible problems would make it less likely that the same firm would be awarded a renewal when the original lease expires.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007
Pinker on Obscenity

Two weeks ago Vice Squad was in attendance when Steven Pinker came to town to talk about his new book, The Stuff of Thought. The vice angle concerned cursing, and now Pinker has a related essay in The New Republic -- thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the pointer. The essay is bookended by a discussion of the curse word that Bono blurted out in a live television broadcast in 2003. Pinker is no fan of the FCC's indecency controls that put broadcasters at risk of huge fines from curse words going out over the airwaves -- which is not to say that speakers and writers should not economize on their use of swearing.

But why is it that words related to sex are among those that have become curses? Part of the answer, according to Pinker, is that traditionally sex is often more painful than joyful:
Sex has high stakes, including exploitation, disease, illegitimacy, incest, jealousy, spousal abuse, cuckoldry, desertion, feuding, child abuse, and rape. These hazards have been around for a long time and have left their mark on our customs and our emotions. Thoughts about sex are likely to be fraught, and not entertained lightly.
Here's an 18-minute sample of Pinker from the indispensable TED Talks series.

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Friday, October 12, 2007
Ban Bops Bingo Biz

Public smoking bans continue to appear to be successful policies -- for reducing gambling. Vice Squad has of late been following the travails of the British Bingo industry in the wake of the smoking ban. Those travails continue. But if we Americans think we are exempt from the sacrifice of Bingo upon the altar of a smoke-free environment, we'd better think again. Bingo in Greenville, Mississippi -- along with the charities that are supported by the mandated "donations" from Bingo halls -- is feeling the pinch of the smoking ban. What is particularly galling for the Bingoers is that Greenville's law explicitly exempts their competitors, the casinos, from the smoking ban.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007
Legal Sales of Magic Mushrooms Threatened in the Netherlands

Tourists have been coming to Amsterdam, ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms, and ending up in the hospital, with some frequency. The national government is considering a prohibition on sales, but the mayor of Amsterdam is being more creative. He has proposed a three-day waiting period between the time you order the mushrooms and when you can pick them up. This would put a barrier in the way of mushroom overconsumption by the (often British) weekend tourists, while maintaining fungi availability to the sensible Dutch. The Times has the story.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Swedish Alcohol Restrictions Lose Again at the EU

It took a week for the news to reach Vice Squad, but once again, the Swedish prohibition on personal imports of alcohol ordered over the internet and received via the mail has been found to violate the free trade provisions of the EU. The European Court of Justice decision was a near-replay of a similar case from June, so the result was not surprising. The CEO of Sweden's state retail monopoly claims not to be worried, because internet sales currently are tiny (whereas personally bringing alcohol from abroad is a major alcohol source in Sweden). But now that mail-order alcohol deliveries to homes can no longer be confiscated -- assuming that the high Swedish excise taxes are remitted -- I wouldn't be surprised to see increased popularity for that channel of alcohol distribution.

In an unrelated but unusually upbeat alcohol story, a man was restored to health in Australia a couple months ago, it has just been reported, in part by feeding him vodka via a nasal drip at a rate of 3 drinks per hour. Alcohol was needed to combat a poison, and the hospital ran out of pharmaceutical ethanol, so staff members bought a case of vodka. Finally, a small upside to the suppression of the Russian press -- if this story got out in Russia, there's no telling the mischief that could result.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Things Going Better With Coke?

The Caribbean coast of Nicaragua is enjoying economic development thanks to... flotsam:
A combination of law enforcement, geography and ocean currents has washed tonnes of [cocaine], and millions of dollars, into what was one of the Caribbean's most desolate and isolated regions. Villages that once eked an existence on shrimp and red-tinged lobster have been transformed. In place of thatched wooden huts there are brick houses, mansions and satellite dishes.
Most of the coke is thrown overboard by drug runners when they are in danger of apprehension. Others then turn up at the villages along the shore and pay a finder's fee: "Colombian traffickers and Nicaraguan middlemen trawl villages offering finders $4,000 (£1,960) a kilo, said [a police chief] - seven times less than the US street value but a fortune to a fisherman."


Monday, October 08, 2007
A Cost of the Swedish Model of Prostitution Control?

The social costs of different types of prostitution vary quite a bit, with coerced prostitution being much more objectionable than the adult voluntary trade. Internationally trafficked women who are coerced into prostitution are particularly vulnerable, as generally they have no resources to summon help. So it sometimes happens that they inform a customer of their plight. In Sussex, in the UK, the police are asking customers to be vigilant in looking for signs of coercion, and to report it to the police.

In Sweden, customers of prostitutes are engaging in illegal activity, though the behavior of the prostitutes themselves is not criminalised. Is it likely that Swedish johns would report coerced prostitution to the police, knowing that they might then be subject to arrest? As in the case of drugs, alcohol, and other vices, prostitution policy can't be judged based upon the noble intentions that underlie a policy -- we have to ask about the actual effects. The criminalisation of prostitution renders prostitutes, particularly streetwalkers, at enormous risk of being a victim of violence. The criminalisation of johns, likewise, might not conduce to the safety of prostitutes.

Thanks to SWOP East Sex Workers Outreach Project for the pointer.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007
"Behind the Jackpot"

The front page of the New York Times today featured an article on state lotteries in the US, as part of an eventual series (I suppose) entitled "Behind the Jackpot." The online version also features a spiffy and informative interactive map where you can check out some state-by-state figures, and a 10-minute-plus video focusing on North Carolina's recent adoption of a state lottery. The relatively small contribution that lotteries make to overall education budgets, even when proceeds are earmarked for education, is highlighted, as are some of the unsavory marketing tools employed in some states. The overall tone of the article (and video) is quite negative, and to my mind, ingenuously so. The article and video make a big deal over the fact that the majority of money spent by lottery ticket buyers does not go to the state as net revenue -- but this mainly is because you have to return something like half the money in prizes to have a sustainable lottery. The map notes that the Massachusetts lottery has the highest payback rate -- 72 percent -- and attracts the largest per-capita spending, and that other states hope to emulate it. Massachusetts's sort of success can be spun as failure (and is so spun in the article) if your measure of success is the percentage of ticket revenues that remains in state coffers. I agree that marketing and administrative expenses are worth keeping track of, and there is something to be said for controlling advertising and not seeking to maximize profits, but the percentage of the spend that becomes net state revenue, which almost has to be less than 50 percent, is just not an important metric. (Whew.)

The Iowa figures on the map, which seem to suggest that administrative expenses equal 40 percent of the ticket sales, appear dodgy. Ignoring those, the lowest payback rate is reported to be in North Dakota, where prizes are 49% of sales and the lottery is not very popular ($35 in annual sales per capita). Per-capita ticket sales in Massachusetts are a staggering $699 yearly.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007
Gambling at Boston College

A friend of Vice Squad brings word of a conference, "Gambling and the American Moral Landscape," to be held at Boston College on October 25 and 26th. The conference website also contains lots of helpful links to other gambling-related matters, including a 14-multiple-choice-question quiz ("How many states have Indian casinos?"-- the answer is here), a collection of books, articles, and films focused on gambling, and a page that promises daily updates for links to gambling-related stories in the press.

The conference is open to the public (and at no charge), but advance registration is requested.


Friday, October 05, 2007
Obscenity Rampant in Kansas!

Except, er, that if it is rampant, then it can't legally qualify as obscenity, because obscenity has to violate community standards.

A grand jury in Johnson County brought misdemeanor charges against four businesses for peddling filth, including one accused of displaying nasty Halloween costumes in store areas where the children might be harmed. Another business, which presumably offers many items for sale, was indicted for a single proffered DVD that the grand jury thought merited further court review. Somehow I missed the story that violent crime had been eliminated in Kansas.

The Supreme Court of the United States also contributed to the purification of America, by declining to review an Alabama law that bans the sale (not the possession, just the sale) of something called a vibrator, along with related items. But will the state law, now allowed to persist, actually be enforced? The "senior media and sexuality analyst" for Focus on the Family Action is concerned: 'Upholding the law is one thing, but consistently enforcing it is an entirely different matter. The citizens of Alabama will need to remain vigilant on this issue.' The price of unliberty is eternal vigilance.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007
All the Snus...

....that's fit to print. Yes, the New York Times has joined Vice Squad on the snus bandwagon -- let's hope they catch on to that important story about the smoking ban and British bingo parlours next. Most of the Times article will be familiar to the loyal Vice Squad reader, though I did find some speculation about why snus might be safer than US dip-style chewing tobacco to be of interest: the thought is that it has to do with the fact [I didn't know this, either] that snus is pasteurized, while the American dip is, um, fermented. Just the facts' ma'am. Another fact new to me is that Sweden and snus have gone together for approximately two centuries. My final observation on the Times story is that when someone announces that they 'are not a health fascist,' you should keep your eye on your personal liberties.

Thanks to a friend of Vice Squad for the pointer. And let's hope that the Times puts a full-time reporter on the snus beat.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007
The Delicate Treatment Afforded a Big Gambler

If someone owes you, oh, 2 million pounds, you might consider pressing him for payment in less than six years time. Or maybe not. What if he continued to come by and patronise your business regularly, in a manner that was highly profitable to you? In that case, you might not want to put him off by getting a court involved in that little matter of debt collection.

Welcome to the world of "blue whales," the planet's most prolific gamblers. Over a span of a dozen years, the blue whale in question had lost 23 million pounds in the London club where he owed the 2 million pounds. He eventually tried not to pay, arguing that the club's behavior amounted to offering him credit, which British gambling clubs cannot do. So far, this legal gamble has not panned out, either. The Guardian has the story.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Vice Squad is not alone in thinking that snus should be legal throughout the European Union, and that such legality would almost certainly lower the overall health toll associated with tobacco products. Our ally is "Bacon Butty", who explains some of the shortcomings of this summer's EU preliminary report on the health risks of smokeless tobacco. Thanks to the Adam Smith Institute for the pointer.

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