A 30-second radio ad that began airing this week on Philadelphia stations warns: "Banks can't serve drinks. Casinos shouldn't make loans."
The message, sponsored by an antigaming coalition, attacks a measure in the legislature that would allow Pennsylvania casinos to extend lines of credit to gamblers.
The provision is tucked into the extensive bill, now being debated in Harrisburg, to add table games at the 12 licensed slots parlors.
Under current law, credit is not available to patrons. However, Pennsylvania casino operators have argued that the practice is widespread nationally. New Jersey has allowed casinos to extend credit since 1978.
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Casino Association, Ken Smukler, declined yesterday to comment on the credit provision or the campaign against it.
Antigaming forces are pressuring Philadelphia senators to oppose the measure if it passes the House. Their coalition - including Casino-Free Philadelphia, Asian Americans United, Philadelphia churches, and social-service agencies - warns that in a city where one in four residents lives in poverty, easy credit would feed gambling addictions.
The Philadelphia area has two casinos that are operational and three that are planned, including the SugarHouse Casino under construction on the Fishtown-Northern Liberties border and the stalled Foxwoods Casino in South Philadelphia.
Credit is "one more predatory aspect of the whole business," said the Rev. Robin Hynicka, pastor of Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City.
William Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada in Reno, said the concern was justified.
Extending lines of credit to gamblers would increase casino revenue, particularly from higher-stakes table games, Eadington said. But it also would exacerbate gambling addictions, most notably at urban casinos that are not destination resorts, he said.
"If you add credit," he said, "it creates a temptation that will be problematic for some."
In some states such as Nevada, Eadington pointed out, gamblers can be arrested for not covering casino debts. Last year, former 76er Charles Barkley faced possible criminal charges after running up a $400,000 gambling tab at Wynn Las Vegas Resort. He paid off the four $100,000 markers.
Yesterday, about a dozen gambling critics appeared unannounced at the West Philadelphia headquarters of Democratic State Sen. Vincent Hughes to press their opposition. He met with the group and promised to raise the matter with the rest of the Philadelphia Senate delegation.
Kimberly Everett, Hughes' spokeswoman, said the credit issue was "not necessarily" a deal-breaker in terms of the senator's support of new gaming legislation. She added that Hughes "was sensitive to the fact that this was predatory."
Sen. Lee Anna Washington, a Democrat from Mount Airy, said the provision was indeed a deal-breaker.
Fateen Bullock, her chief counsel, said Washington called the credit measure "a recipe for disaster."
"This is not a provision that's helpful to consumers," he said.
The city's Senate delegation, Bullock said, was "actively exploring options in respect to rolling back that provision."
Sen. Shirley Kitchen (D., Phila.), who also was visited by gaming opponents, said the matter was likely to come up when local senators meet Tuesday for a previously planned session on the troubled Foxwoods project.
"We should not allow people to run a tab at the casinos," Kitchen said. On whether the credit issue could derail Senate support of the table-games bill, she said, "It just might be, I don't know."
Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester), ranking Republican on the House Gaming Oversight Committee, called the credit measure "terrible public policy." But he also said the opposition might not be strong enough to stop the gaming bill.
"A lot of us care," Schroder said, "but I don't think it will be enough to defeat" it.
Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is less concerned about the credit issue than about expanding casino jobs and revenue via table games, spokeswoman Johnna Pro said.
"The minutia of the language," she said, "is not what he is focused on."