Lotteries in Puerto Rico

Our interest in this topic was originally piqued by this piece of information for tourists:

"At the airports in Puerto Rico, your luggage will be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure you are not carrying prohibited fruits and plants to the mainland. Travelers carrying undeclared prohibited items will be fined on the spot. Articles from Vietnam, North Korea, Kampuchea or Cuba, illegal publications, lottery tickets, chocolate liqueurs or pre-Columbian artifacts may not be brought into the country."

When we first saw this list, we were reminded of the opening paragraph in the preface of Michel Foucault's The Order of Things: An Archaelogy of the Human Sciences: "This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered as I read the passsage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought --- our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography --- breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.  This passage quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies'.  In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that."

We were not as shattered as Foucault was by that piece of tourist information, for we thought that we could divine the purpose of prohibiting some of these items:

However, we were somewhat puzzled by the presence of chocolate liqueurs, but much more so by the lottery tickets.  At first blush, the idea that tourists are fined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors for carrying lottery tickets on them is quite extraordinary.  This caused us to start looking into the subject of lotteries in Puerto Rico.

Newsstand, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Buying a lottery ticket in San Juan, Puerto Rico
(photo credit: Pablo Verdin)

We found out that the Puerto Rico lottery was founded in 1813 (or 1814, according to another source).  There exists an official, government-sanctioned lottery system which operates under a lottery commissioner.  There is not one lottery, but a number of different games.  The two most popular ones are Pega 3, which is based upon choosing a three-digit number, and Loto, which is based upon choosing six different numbers.  The Pega 3 has multiple winners per game and the payout is modest.  The odds of winning Loto outright is significantly lower for any one person since all six numbers have to be chosen, but the payout is much larger.  The revenue from lottery ticket sales is divided among the licensed vendors, the payouts to the winners, the administrative/marketing costs and, most importantly, towards a list of designated public programs (such as housing programs for the elderly, health subsidies and local municipalities).  This system is fairly standard and similar to those found elsewhere in the world.  It is a gentler way of raising funds for social programs, as opposed to raising taxes across the board, since people have a choice.

We wanted to find out how Puerto Ricans play these lottery games, and we have some data from the TGI Puerto Rico study, which is a multimedia study conducted by Mediafax Inc to collect demographics, media consumption, product usage and lifestyle information, and contains a section about the lottery.  The study had a sample of 2,055 individuals aged 12 or more, who were interviewed between February and April, 1999. 

Overall, 55% of Puerto Ricans indicated that they had purchased lottery tickets in the last 12 months.  Of these people, 42% said that they play Pega 3 most often and 50% said that they play Loto most often; of course, some people play both.  The choice of the specific game reflects one's preference of odds versus payout.  Demographically, the distributions are:

Demographic Group

% purchased lottery tickets in last 12 months


Socio-economic Level
     Top 10%
     Next 20%
     Next 30%
     Bottom 40%


(source: TGI Puerto Rico, Mediafax Inc.)

There is nothing unexpected here.  In terms of the sexes, men are somewhat more likely to be play than women.  In terms of age, teenagers are the least likely to do so, and the most fervent group is the middle-aged people.  Socio-economically, the poorest people are slightly less likely to play, either because of the long odds for large payouts in Loto or the small payouts for the short odds in Pega 3.

The TGI Puerto Rico study contains a large number of items about personal opinions about many different things.  Attitudinally, here is how lottery players compare against the general population for some items that we deem to be relevant to this topic. 

Attitudinal statements

% total population definitely agree % lottery players definitely agree
If I won the lottery, I would never work again 35% 41%
Money is the best measure of success 17% 19%
I am perfectly happy with my standard of living 33% 31%
Generally people get what they deserve 27% 28%
There is little I can do to change my life 17% 15%

(source: TGI Puerto Rico, Mediafax Inc.)

These items tap a number of dimensions of the lottery concept, principally that one might get lucky and become rich whereupon all of one's problems are solved forever.  A comparison of the lottery players versus the total population on these items shows that they behave in the expected directions, but not overwhelmingly so.

Which leaves the question unanswered: why can't tourists bring lottery tickets?  Are they afraid that tourists would bring in lottery tickets with larger payouts from elsewhere and sell them there, thereby ruining the local system?  If so, why not use dispatch systems such as the US Postal Service or Federal Express, which would be cheaper than flying over in person?  And has anyone heard of e-commerce?  Should this protectionist measure be taken up with the World Trade Organization?  ...

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(posted by Roland Soong on 10/28/99)

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