A lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn at random to determine prizes. The most common use is in state governments, which operate public lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes. State laws governing lotteries vary, but most include a set of basic principles: the lottery is a private business, the profits are the property of the state, and the operation of the lottery is controlled by an independent board or commission. In addition, the law specifies the types of prizes that may be offered and prohibits the lottery from being used to finance illegal gambling.

A key argument for the adoption of a state lottery is its value as a source of “painless” revenue, in which the players voluntarily spend their money on tickets (instead of being taxed) to support an important public service. This argument is especially persuasive when states face fiscal stress and the prospect of having to cut or limit programs. But studies have shown that a state’s actual financial condition has little bearing on its decision to adopt a lottery.

Once a lottery is established, debate and criticism shift from the desirability of a state lottery to more specific features of its operations. For example, complaints often focus on the problem of compulsive gambling or the regressive impact on lower-income populations. State lottery officials respond to these concerns by enhancing publicity campaigns, adding new games, and expanding the number of retailers and other distribution channels.