Unhooking Charities on Gambling

You might call Judi Bergen an accidental activist.

She didn't intend to get involved with a group called RAGE - Residents Against Gambling Expansion. (For one thing, "a lot of us felt that the acronym wasn't quite appropriate," she says.) But Ms. Bergen became part of a wave of grass-roots activism that is successfully challenging the expansion of gambling across Canada.

Last month, the Ontario government abandoned a plan to open 44 casinos across the province, a move that would have made it second only to Nevada as the most gambling-intensive jurisdiction in North America.

Bergen got involved when she was asked to attend a RAGE meeting being held at her church. She has since come to view the gambling issue as one with "broad tentacles ... and an incredible potential for disaster."

Complicating the issue is the role of charities: The Canadian principle that gambling revenues must be used for "the public good" was intended to make gambling subservient to civic good works. In practice, however, it has tended to encourage the charities' dependence on gambling revenues.

"Commercial casinos" here exist in partnership with the provincial government, and some casinos are ventures between the charities and the operators. As a result, Canadian charitable organizations of all kinds, including many churches, are as much hooked on gambling as are local governments.

While not accepting gambling revenues as a matter of policy, The United Church of Canada wants to know the true cost of gambling. The UCC, the largest Protestant church in Canada, is calling for a full federal inquiry into the social, economic, and legal impact of gambling.

Understanding gambling behavior

A call for "more study" is, as often as not, a stalling tactic. And the UCC's Bonnie Greene concedes that there is a "long tradition of Royal Commission reports gathering dust on the shelves." But she insists that a federal study is essential if city councils are to make informed evaluations of developers' proposals for new casinos.

Len Hendrickson, an independent researcher in North Vancouver, British Columbia, says that in the field of addiction research, "gambling is kind of the new kid on the block...." At the Addiction Research Library in Toronto, for instance, "If you collected everything on alcohol and drug addiction, you'd get enough to fill, well, a library. If you collected everything on gambling addiction, it would fill a phone booth."

Moreover, much of what would be in that phone booth would be studies funded either by the gambling industry itself, or by governments eager for gambling revenues and hence predisposed to favor new casinos. Studies tend to suggest that about 1 percent of the population is predisposed to pathological gambling.

While Assistant Deputy Minister David Aronoff says, "It's really up to the municipalities," the provincial government had been viewed as pushing communities to accept casinos, even ignoring referendums voting them down. Under the new policy, new casinos will be located only in municipalities that have endorsed them with an affirmative vote. Only four have done so thus far.

As in the United States, legalized gambling has expanded immensely in Canada over the past generation and is now a $13.6 billion to $18.4 billion industry. Canadians don't gamble as much as Americans - whose annual wagering comes out to around $2,400 per capita. But many Canadians are alarmed at the extent to which their provincial and local governments are rushing ahead with the introduction of new forms of gambling that their American counterparts are backing away from. Video lottery terminals, for example, operate with great speed and there's no skill involved, enabling the user to lose money much more quickly.

Revenues from legalized gambling can be very seductive as a supplement to tax revenues, and gambling revenues are used to support government services here. And as in the US, Canadian governments face immense public pressure to balance budgets, cut taxes, or both. That Canadians tend to expect more government services than Americans do only makes the financial squeeze tighter.

Who profits

Increased regulation may be uncovering as many problems as are solved. Indeed, Ontario had presented its original casino growth plan as a way to stabilize the stream of revenues going to charities, which have hitherto depended largely on a hard-to-regulate system of temporary, roving casinos that have been phased out.

Judi Bergen speaks for many citizen activists in Canada when she says, "You can't legislate morality. But you don't have to open up doors to addiction."

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