Voters in many municipalities in Alberta had their chance to decide whether or not they wanted video lottery terminals, and in the province’s two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, they decided yes, they do.

In fact, VLTs, labelled the crack cocaine of gambling by critics, were kept by all but six of the 31 communities that voted on the issue. The communities of Canmore, Coaldale, Cardston, Lacombe, Stony Plain, and the County of Lethbridge voted the machines out. While the margin of victory in Calgary was quite large (58 to 42 per cent), voters in Edmonton decided by a mere 595 votes to keep them. VLT opponents vowed to continue pressing the provincial government to keep its promises to help problem gamblers and perhaps even to remove VLTs to casinos.

Due to the work of anti-VLT volunteers in municipalities across the province, plebiscites were on many municipal ballots Oct. 19 to determine whether each city would keep or get rid of its VLTs.

Vote on Terminals Edmonton, an anti-VLT coalition of citizens and community groups in Edmonton, needed 61,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. Gary Rohr, VOTE’s co-chair, says VOTE received almost 105,000 signatures. Turnout on polling day, however, was much lower.

In Calgary, Calgarians for Democratic Choice needed 80,000 signatures and got more than 100,000. In that city, too, however, the number of people who signed the petition was less than the number who voted to remove the mcahines. Anti-VLT groups were vastly out-spent by pro-VLT Hospitality Alberta, which said it would put $1 million into pro-VLT campaigns across the province.

Vic Justik, director of development at the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling, Alberta, told The Interim in a pre-vote interview that VLTs are a particularly insidious form of gambling, because a gambler is looking for instant results and immediate gratification, which VLTs (like slot machines) provide. They differ from slots because they are not found in casinos and do not pay out cash but rather a receipt to be redeemed elsewhere in the bar or lounge.

Justik says 60 per cent of the $3.2 billion Albertans spend annually on gambling is spent on VLTs. The Alberta government’s revenue on VLTs was $460 million in the last year statistics are available – about the amount the government made on oil royalties. “The Alberta government is addicted to VLT revenues,” Justik says.

The real concern, however, is the human addiction. In Edmonton alone, the CFCG-A hotline for problem gamblers had 2,418 calls in 1997, an increase of 20 per cent over 1996. Justik says the number of calls has gone up dramatically since VLTs were introduced in the early 1990s.

In 1992, there were three Gamblers Anonymous groups in Alberta; today there are 40. The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Addiction Commission estimates there are more than 61,000 problem and compulsive gamblers in the province. Noting there were 355,552 VLT users in 1997, the AADAC says one in six VLT users is a problem or compulsive gambler.

Justik points to the enormous social costs that VLT addictions cause: an increase in the number of suicides; an increase in crime and in jail and welfare costs, and the “pain and remorse” caused to families of gambling addicts.