Problem Gambling in Canada by Lorne Tepperman and Kristy Wanner (Oxford, $21.95, 240 pages)

The Ontario government recently announced its plans to overhaul the provincial gambling system. According to Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, this would increase revenue and job opportunities. The overhaul would include a new casino in the Greater Toronto Area, an expansion in lottery ticket sales and slot machines, and the creation of an online gaming site. While Ontario and other provincial governments support gambling opportunities because of large revenues, the negative impacts of the practice are often downplayed. Problem Gambling in Canada, a new book in the Oxford Univerity Press “Issues in Canada” series, aims to shed light onto the full extent that gambling benefits and harms Canadian society. The authors, Lorne Tepperman (sociology professor at the University of Toronto) and Kristy Wanner (who won national recognition for developing a gambling prevention program for universities), focus on the role of society in causing problem gambling while examining the advantages and problems of legalized gambling.

The reader is initially given a brief history of gambling, particularly in Europe and Canada, leading up to the 1985 amendment to the Criminal Code that gave the provinces exclusive jurisdiction over gambling. Interestingly, the authors draw a connection between the increasing liberalization of gaming opportunities and the rise of “pluralism and secular permissiveness” over “staunch Protestant moral conservatism.” Because of the approval of government, gambling in moderation became acceptable as a form of “productive leisure” – an activity that would increase government revenue.

How do individuals become problem gamblers? Tepperman and Wanner outline a “downward spiral” that often begins when a recreational or social gambler wins a significant sum or wants to relieve stress or loneliness. Unexpected wins and losses cause mood swings and problem gamblers become willing to risk more to achieve the excitement of another win. Of course, this leads to more time and money spent on gambling and neglect of the family, work, and health. Eventually, the individual develops withdrawal symptoms when not gambling and may take to forms of substance abuse. Further consequences include financial distress, illegal activity (committing crimes to acquire more money), and alienation from the family.

In examining how to deal with these problems, the authors look at specific types of gambling (sports wagering, casinos, internet gambling), where they take place (the workplace), and its disproportionately harmful impact on youth. Some suggestions to mitigate the issue are: surveillance of internet use in the workplace and at home, providing problem gambling awareness training and counseling, establishing and reviewing school and team policies pertaining to gambling, and having effective communication between the parent and child.

The authors also evaluate policies already in place to deal with problem gambling, and the claim that government-regulated forms of gaming are good for the economy and are pre-empting illegal, “unsafe” forms of gambling. For instance, Tepperman and Wanner point out that legalized gambling closes local businesses, increases public money spent on dealing with problem gambling, and only results in a small portion of revenue going to problem gambling treatment.

Though not a particularly gripping read, Problem Gambling in Canada gives a solid grounding on the subject with copious studies and statistics. Both sides of the debate about government regulation of gambling are given their fair due. Some claims proposed by Tepperman and Wanner are questionable, for instance, that capitalism and the general spirit of achievement and competition encourage gambling, overall, though, the book provides a very thorough treatment of the prevalence of gambling, its social causes, and possible solutions to the problem.

Pauline Kosalka, a reporter with The Interim, wrote about “The problem with gambling” and “Society, not just individuals, pay price for gambling” in the March 2010 edition of the paper.