Online instant lottery games not so instant in NC

Posted December 5, 2017 6:52 p.m. EST

— The North Carolina Lottery Commission pulled back Tuesday from plans to pursue "digital instant" games, which are essentially online instant scratch-off tickets, citing concerns from retailers and social conservatives.

The nine-member commission was supposed to vote at its quarterly meeting on issuing a request for proposals for the games to determine what they might look like and get an estimate of revenue potential. But the issue was pulled off the agenda for further study.

"It's important for us to consider and understand the implications of online sales and how we can meet players – different players – where they are and where they want to be," Lottery Commission Chairman Courtney Crowder said.

Critics likened the digital instant games to internet sweepstakes, which the state has been trying to outlaw for years.

"It is essentially video sweepstakes right there on your device – on your home computer, on your tablet," said John Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. "It would create, in our opinion, a very significant conflict with the policy that has existed in the state for many years."

Crowder bristled at the comparison between digital instant games and sweepstakes.

"The North Carolina Education Lottery is nothing like sweepstakes. First of all, we’re legal. We are absolutely a partner of education in the state," he said. "We take our job and our work here at the lottery extremely seriously to make sure that we’re innovating and we’re understanding what it takes to continue to add money to the general fund of North Carolina."

Andy Ellen, president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, said the 6,000 retailers statewide who sell lottery tickets likewise take their jobs seriously and would be hurt by digital instant games.

"If you can sit at your house and play with a debit card and a checking account, especially in rural areas, it's actually tougher to get customers to come physically to your store," Ellen said.

The lottery already allows people to purchase tickets online for the daily Pick 3, Pick4 and Cash 5 games, as well as the multi-state PowerBall and MegaMillions games. But Ellen said the digital instant games go far beyond that.

Crowder said state lawmakers gave the Lottery Commission permission to add any game that any other state has, including instant games. The commission has been talking about expanding online for a long time because that's where younger customers are, he said, adding that there's no guarantee North Carolina would add instant games in the future.

"It was never meant to be as provocative as it has become, but again, it just gave us a chance to just spend a little bit more time with some of our stakeholders to talk about what this means for the state," he said.

Ellen and Rustin said they're glad the commission is pausing to take a longer look at the impact of digital instant games.

"Once you go [through] that door on public policy, it’s hard to turn around," Ellen said. "Nothing gets hurt by taking more time."