02/07/2003 12:00AM

Label this law 'L' for looney

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NEW YORK - The New York State Racing and Wagering Board was forced to convene an emergency meeting last Tuesday to implement obscure legislation passed last year that is suddenly taking effect Feb. 16: a program under which state tracks and OTB's must bar from their premises self-registered "problem gamblers."

The tracks and OTB's have 30 days to outline a program that will require them to eject registrants from their facilities, or offer them the less draconian option of limiting the amount they can bet in a day or a week. It will be the tracks' and OTB's responsibility to share the names, photographs, and Social Security numbers of registrants with security and mutuel workers.

The over-under on the number of people who will be identified and ejected under this bizarre program is probably in the low single digits. It might be far more efficient to hand them all $10,000 gambling-refund checks.

Forget for a moment, though, that the program is laughably unnecessary and unenforceable, that it is an unwarranted burden on wagering facilities and an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds. What is truly remarkable about this "restricted gambler program" is that it sets new standards for governmental interference into personal behavior and for treating racing differently from any other state-sanctioned activity.

A small percentage of people who wager lose more than they can afford, causing problems in their lives. The same can be said for people who invest in real estate or the stock market - which has destroyed more wealth in the last two years than all racetrack gambling since the dawn of time. Some people who consume cocktails consume too many, causing not just bankroll shortages but massive public-health expenses and highway fatalities.

So where's the "restricted inves-tor program" that would require every brokerage in the state to deny transactions to registered problem stock-buyers? Where's the "restricted drinker program" that would require every saloon from Brooklyn to Buffalo to maintain a mugshot book and deny service to alcoholics?

If your cholesterol is too high, why can't you register for a program, set up at taxpayer expense, under which every restaurant in the state must recognize you on sight, deny you fried food, or at least be required by law to drizzle vinaigrette rather than pour blue cheese and bacon on your salad?

The burgeoning compulsive-gambling treatment industry includes many sincere individuals who wish to provide comfort and help to those with problems. Good for them. It also, however, seems to include plenty of less well-intentioned zealots who are opposed to gambling in any form and who believe that their opinions about a perfectly legal activity entitles them to create intrusive public policy.

An Internet search on "compulsive gambling" will in short order take you to an organization with the warm and fuzzy name of Pathlights, whose website includes a lengthy "case against gambling" that includes such nuggets as "Gambling is destroying the moral fiber of our nation" and that people wager "15 times as much as is donated to all the churches and religious organizations in the nation." Their interest in that latter comparison becomes clearer when you notice the links on the Pathlights home page to "Harry Potter and the occult," and "More facts against evolution!"

Unfortunately, both politicians and the gambling industry usually embrace the moralizers, either to woo their votes or buy their silence. Politicians have perfected the art of agreeing vigorously with the anti-gambling brigade while simultaneously approving slot machines. A favored technique is to reluctantly say that gambling is necessary to balance the budget but insist on increased funding and visibility for compulsive-gambling treatment.

Brokerages or restaurants would laugh out of the room any self-appointed group that demanded the equivalent of "problem gambler" or "responsible wagering" laws in their businesses. When is the last time you saw a diner menu or a stock order that included a state-ordered message and telephone number for treatment of compulsive eating or investing? Yet tracks are forced to behave like merchants of poison and post signs all over their facilities, and messages in track programs, for treatment of so-called gambling disorders.

The gambling industry is bracing itself for an expected raft of lawsuits in the years ahead from the same sort of people who are now trying to extort the fast-food industry because they ate too many french fries. It isn't going to help if one of those litigants is a "registered problem gambler" who, by law, was supposed to be denied service at the window but went unrecognized by a mutuel clerk. Racing could end up paying through the nose for this sort of inane legislation, but perhaps that's what its advocates really want.