Sunday, May 23, 2021

Does Ohio's million-dollar COVID-19 vaccine lottery cross ethical lines?

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced that the state is creating a lottery in which Ohio residents who have received the COVID-19 vaccine will be eligible to win $1 million in a series of five weekly drawings. Five scholarships to the Ohio State University that will cover tuition, room and board will also be auctioned off to students aged 12 to 17 who become vaccinated.

As I am writing this column, approximately 37% of Ohioans have been fully vaccinated, while 42% have received at least one shot. As of now, nearly 60% of all adults in the United States have received at least one shot. DeWine's goal is to incentivize as many Ohioans as possible to become vaccinated.

Almost immediately after DeWine's announcement I began to receive emails from readers questioning the gambit. "Seems like this could be an ethics topic," wrote a longtime reader from Pittsburgh. "I'm not anti-vax and have received the Pfizer vaccine myself, but I wonder about governments using tax dollars to entice people to take something that has been approved under emergency status."

It's a great question. I found myself torn between thinking that this was an incredibly odd move by DeWine and believing that it might be yet another, although far more extreme, example of offering incentives to people to become vaccinated. White Castle, the hamburger chain, is offering butter cakes on a stick to the newly vaccinated. Cleveland's Major League Baseball team is offering discounted tickets. But DeWine's $1 million lottery elevates the enticements to a whole new level.

As DeWine pointed out in his press conference, he has wide latitude in how he uses federal COVID-19 relief funds. "I did not go into this and make this decision thinking everybody was going to say this is a wonderful idea," DeWine said. But so far, no one has proved that the move breaks any laws or regulations.

Even if it breaks no laws, is it ethical?

If DeWine truly believes it will work to make his constituents safer, then a case could be made that his ethical motivation is solid. Of course, we might hope that becoming vaccinated to increase personal and public safety should be enough motivation, but clearly that has not seemed to be the case.

But do such lottery enticements work? Todd Rogers, a colleague of mine at Harvard Kennedy School who is a behavioral scientist, points to studies that suggest that "lotteries are effectively overvalued financial incentives." But he points out that "lotteries can be fun, can garner attention, can generate earned media."

Rogers observes that a lottery could "crowd out" intrinsic motivation to get a vaccination. But since getting an emergency vaccine during a pandemic is rare, "maybe we can be less worried about crowding out intrinsic motivation for future behavior by offering extrinsic rewards now."

In other words, DeWine's unusual ploy might work. Who knows?

If the right thing is to encourage as many people to become vaccinated as possible, then DeWine's million-dollar lottery might raise a few eyebrows, but it doesn't strike me as crossing ethical lines. In an ideal world, people who are capable of doing so would become vaccinated in the interest of their own and their neighbor's well-being. But in an imperfect world, perhaps it takes cakes on a stick and a chance at a million bucks or a free education to get them to do so. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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