As legal gambling becomes widespread,
dangerous addictions grow

Gambling has become a widespread practice in Canadian life. It may be found in the form of state-managed lotteries, casinos and even charity raffles. Every province in Canada holds a near-monopoly over the gaming industry. Lotteries, horse racing, charitable gaming, casinos, slot machines, video lottery terminals and internet gambling are all somewhere in Canada, though some provinces limit or prohibit certain kinds of gambling.

Gambling is a practice that can become addictive and even a serious health problem. Problem or excessive gambling harms individuals and communities.

For individual people, there are various health, economic and psychological risks associated with problem gambling. Possible effects include drug abuse, bankruptcy, anxiety, depression, headaches and family tension and abuse. The Canada Safety Council estimates that about 200 people commit suicide each year due to problem gambling. The rate is higher than that for any other addiction-related kind of suicide.

Governments’ involvement in profiting at the expense of gamblers’ money and addictions is therefore questionable, leading to questions about whether government monopolization does much to protect the consumer and society. Yet, it is unclear that privatizing gambling is the answer. The report, Gambling with our Future?, published by the Fraser Institute in 2002, endorsed privatizing gambling, because monopolized gambling “detract(s) from the overall quality of the gambling industry by limiting competition and maintaining artificially high prices.” Although there is government encouragement to gamble through advertisements, there is reason to fear that a competitive privatized industry will become even more attractive to the consumer and the problem gambler. To minimize this impact, there would have to be sufficient government regulation.

New gambling opportunities provided by governments do sometimes correlate to increases in gambling. In 2000, the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry reported the results of a study measuring the response of the residents of Hull, Que. to a new local casino. The percentage of at-risk gamblers increased from 3.3 per cent to 7.8 per cent and the percentage of residents who gambled increased from 13.8 per cent to 60.4 per cent. Clearly, the availability of gambling leads to increases in gambling.

Although governments profit by their monopoly over the gaming industry, they use a percentage of the money to support programs for problem gambling prevention. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, for example, uses 2 to 3 per cent of its revenues to fund problem gambling. In recent years, that has translated into just under $50 million. However, according to the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, problem gamblers are responsible for 36 per cent of the OLG’s revenue. In other words, problem gamblers are a net source of revenue for the government and one might question whether the state has a real interest in helping them.

There are some forms of gambling that are more dangerous than others. VLTs – video lottery terminals – are considered to be highly addictive and are illegal in British Columbia and Ontario. The flashing graphics, lights and quick speed of play (two seconds per round) give the player a feeling of excitement.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, VLTs account for $65 million of provincial revenue. A 2009 gambling prevalence study in the province found that 72 per cent of problem gamblers play VLTs. Several individuals, such as Keith Piercey, whose daughter committed suicide because of her VLT addiction, are fighting to have the machines banned. Ken Hanna, the executive director of the Safe Bet Society in Nova Scotia, recommended that the government issue gambling control cards, which allow users to limit their money and time spent gambling.

“It’s easy to reach a dissociative state … to block out other things from your life,” says Dr. Gary Smith, a gambling research specialist at the University of Alberta. It becomes a “coping strategy,” especially for women, who find it a way to deal with hardships in marriage and life. However, it appears they are playing a rigged game. According to Smith, many become addicted in trying to find a way to play the system, even though the games are “set so that the house has an advantage.” Smith was specifically talking about VLTs, but his observations are true of most games of chance.

Internet gambling, which was previously illegal, will be launched this fall in Québec, B.C. and the Maritimes through an online poker site. The Ontario government is considering doing the same. Québec’s 18 directors of public health recommended that the province properly examine the risks of online gambling because of its addictiveness. According to a study by Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec, 10 to 25 per cent of internet gambling participants suffer from problem gambling. Internet gambling will bring the problem into people’s homes and workplaces and allow addicts to access their favourite games any time.

There is already an online market for illegal online gambling. It is estimated that $500 million is spent on internet gambling in Ontario. Judith GlynWilliams, director of grants operations at the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, told The Interim that many current internet gambling sites have problems with the fairness of their games and responsible gambling practices. Government control over internet gambling “would increase preventing underage people from gambling and having policies placed for people who have problem gambling.” However, “There is some evidence that when government increases the availability in gambling, you would increase problem gambling.”

It’s a classic Catch-22: regulating gambling can make it “safer,” but it also lends it respectability and fosters its spread, thereby putting more individuals at risk of developing gambling addictions.