Canada eyes impact of gambling

Betting has quadrupled in the past decade, with groups now asking lawmakers to study the social costs.

Tim Smith stumbled from a men's hostel to the steps of his provincial legislature in eastern Canada last week. Standing outside the historic building in Fredericton, New Brunswick, waving a placard and wobbling because of a week-long hunger strike, Mr. Smith says he is making one last bet.

"I'll do everything I can to get lawmakers to listen - to get them to do something about the destructive impact of gambling in this province," says the self-confessed gambling addict who attempted suicide earlier this month.

"I figured I had nothing else to lose since I've already lost everything," he said by telephone from the hostel where he is staying. "It's a shameful, hidden problem that needs government action because they're partially responsible for its devastating consequences." Smith ended his hunger strike last Wednesday after legislators agreed to look at proposals aimed at curbing gambling.

Over the past decade, provincial revenues from gambling have quadrupled, with an estimated 19 million adults, or nearly two-thirds of the population, wagering C$11.3 billion (US$9.3 billion) in 2002, up from C$2.7 billion (US$2.2 billion) in 1992. The money funds everything from schools to social services. While most Canadians wager responsibly, the rapid rise of gambling here is prompting a growing concern - and calls for the federal government to study its impact.

The Canada Safety Council, an independent charitable organization, calls addictive gambling a public-health crisis, saying it accounts for 200 to 360 suicides a year. In a letter to Prime Minister Paul Martin urging him to undertake a study, the Safety Council cites a range of growing social problems in addition to gambling-related deaths: an increase in bankruptcies, family break-ups, domestic abuse, as well as other forms of violence and crimes like loan-sharking.

"We don't know exactly what the costs are. But they appear to be mounting," says spokeswoman Ethel Archard.

Legal gambling is the preserve of provincial governments, many of which have rapidly expanded their casino, lottery, slot-machine, and video lottery terminal (VLT) operations over the past two decades. Revenues are nearly equivalent to those generated by taxes on tobacco and alcohol. The Ontario government has used the approximately C$2 billion - about 3 percent of its overall revenues - generated from gambling to fund healthcare, education, and other social services. Last year it spent C$1.5 billion of that money on hospitals and $100 million to support nonprofit organizations in art, culture, sports, and recreation. It also spent $21.7 million to help problem gamblers.

Gaming advocates stress that gambling brings many benefits to the community. Holly Ward, a spokesperson for the Windsor Casino, located across the river from Detroit, says the casino is now the third-largest employer in the city, with 4,200 workers.

"Not only do we employ a very healthy number of our citizens, but there are tremendous economic spinoffs to everyone from the grocery stores, the shopping malls, and the art galleries," she says. Ms. Ward says the casino has always been proactive about helping problem gamblers - on the front of every slot machine in the casino, for example, is the phone number for a gambling helpline.

In a recent study, the first of its kind, nearly half of all Canadians surveyed said that provincial governments should scale back their advertising and promotion budgets designed to lure gamblers. Additionally, 40 percent of the respondents said the governments should stop any further expansion of casinos, according to a poll conducted by Toronto's Decima Research, released last month. Decima's vice president Richard Bennett says the huge growth in gaming across the country prompted the firm to take a closer look at the issue.

"It's certainly on the public radar. We wanted to find out what the public concerns are," he says, adding that Decima will produce a more comprehensive report later this spring.

Groups like the Safety Council have called for a moratorium on the expansion of casinos, an end to round-the-clock casino hours, and limits on how much a gambler can lose before being cut off. They say that it's up to the federal government to do a comprehensive study - provincial governments, they argue, have a conflict of interest.

Antigambling groups condemn VLT's as the most destructive form of gaming. Studies show that their flashing lights, sounds, and colors drive gamblers to bet faster, fostering addiction within a year. It takes almost four years to become addicted to games like blackjack or sports betting, according to the Safety Council's literature.

Smith should know. Nine years ago, he worked at a printing press before a relative introduced him to VLTs. It wasn't long before he was hooked, pumping more than $150,000 into the machines over the years. He wants New Brunswick to remove all VLTs from local bars and casinos.

The province of Ontario has also come under fire. Premier Dalton McGuinty recently sparked controversy after saying that the province may have come to rely too heavily on gambling revenues. "Perhaps in a better world we wouldn't, but the fact of the matter is it's here. It's here to stay," he told party members. Late last week, his government released new gambling guidelines, which included a moratorium on additional casinos and slot machines in racetracks and bingo halls.

Gambling in Canada has mushroomed since 1968, when Montreal's mayor Jean Drapeau announced the city's first legal lottery in order to raise money for the 1976 Olympics. In the recent Decima poll, 89 percent of respondents said they gambled or played the lottery.

In the US, 29 states have casinos and more run lotteries and horse- and dog-track betting. Revenues from gaming in the US have more than doubled in the past decade, to $72 billion in 2003 from $34 billion in 1993.

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