Gambling opponents stepped up criticism of the Minnesota State Lottery on Thursday, saying an expansion into more online sales could increase addiction and usher in a new generation of gamblers.

“Our state should not be involved in predatory gambling,” said Autumn Leva, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Family Council.

Lottery officials say exhaustive studies of similar online gambling operations in other countries contradict the criticism.

“Their fears are not well-founded,” said Ed Van Petten, executive director of the Minnesota Lottery. “There have been no reports of increased gambling addiction at all.”

The Minnesota Lottery is expanding online offerings to include electronic versions of its lucrative scratch-off games. The move is designed to appeal to younger Minnesotans and boost the sale of traditional lottery tickets.

Online lottery players can bet up to $50 a week, and problem gamblers can block themselves from the site. The lottery has several ways of ensuring that customers are old enough to play and physically in Minnesota when they make their purchases.

The lottery’s expansion comes as a coalition of well-organized and well-financed gambling opponents have successfully beaten back numerous new gambling proposals at the Capitol, from a downtown Minneapolis casino to Las Vegas-style slot machines and other games at horse racing tracks.

These opponents are pressing lottery officials to get approval from the Legislature before moving ahead.

“If the lottery does not share our genuine apprehension of online gaming being detrimental to Minnesota citizens, they should have no problem successfully navigating the legislative process,” said Ted Lillie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

Van Petten said their lawyers have reviewed state law and they firmly believe the lottery does not need legislative approval to expand online.

“We are just offering our products through the Internet,” Van Petten said.

Lottery officials routinely testify at legislative hearings about their new ventures, but they do not seek a vote of approval.

“The lottery’s unilateral decision to expand online, without legislative approval … is an affront to the legislative process,” said Jack Meeks, president of Citizens Against Gambling Expansion, a coalition of gambling opponents.

Online gambling makes up less than 1 percent of the state’s $560 million annual lottery business.

The push into online gambling began during Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration and has not slowed under DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

State officials rely on lottery money to balance the state budget. A fourth of all lottery proceeds go toward environmental preservation efforts and to the state’s general fund, which pays for schools, public safety and other spending.