“In a bet there is a fool and a thief.”
— English proverb
VLTs have been referred to as the “crack cocaine” of gambling (Statistics Canada, 2003). Supporting this statement is the evidence of a close relationship between VLT use and problem gambling. Regarding VLT use, 80 per cent of problem gamblers have played in the past 12 months, and 26 per cent of problem gamblers remembered the VLT as their first gambling experience.
That statement is from a 2005 report prepared by Marketquest Research Group Inc. for the provincial Department of Health and Community Services. It was the first gambling prevalence study conducted in this province.
Health and Community Services planned to use the information to improve programs and services “to help problem gamblers in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
Laudable stuff, right? So you have to ask the question: why is the provincial government even in the “crack cocaine” business?
If you were listening to Government Services Minister Harry Harding the other day, you might have been surprised to learn — as I was — that the government is in the gambling business to help gambling addicts.
Yes, our benevolent provincial political leaders, seeing all those people out there sitting slumped and glassy-eyed in front of the swinging bells, decided in their infinite wisdom to cash in on the hundreds of video lottery terminals in bars across the province in order to help those for whom they hold a dangerous appeal.
“As far as I know, most of the money that is received from the gaming industry does go back into services to help people with addictions,” Harding told The Telegram Tuesday after making a speech to a gathering of the Canadian Association of Gaming Regulatory Agencies in St. John’s.
Who knew the provincial government cared so much? What better way to help all those poor problem gamblers than to allow enough cash-grabbing casino games to fund anti-gambling advocacy services!
You can see the brilliance in it — they’re throwing their money away anyway, so why not use it to help them?
Seriously. The government is metaphorically in the “crack cocaine” business for the same reason that drug pushers are: to make money.
Obviously Minister Harding does not realize how lucrative gambling is in this province.
Does the province use any of the millions of dollars it rakes in every year from “gaming” to help those with gambling addictions? Yes it does, but it’s a pittance.
According to the Finance Department, “Revenues for 2010-2011 from VLTs was $74.4 million. With regards to the amount spent on responsible gambling programs and advocacy, (Atlantic Lottery Corporation’s) budget for 2010-11 was $1 million spread across three provinces — Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.” The rest of the money goes into general revenues.
The Department of Finance noted, “VLT licensees in the province are also required to contribute one per cent of their VLT revenues to a fund for gambling addiction programs which has averaged approximately $300,000 annually over the past several years.”
Now, I understand that the government would find it hard to get out of the gambling racket. Let’s face it, it’s as hooked on the money as problem gamblers are on gambling.
But there’s something morally questionable about tempting gamblers with bright lights and spinning wheels and the promise of winning, while at the same time paying little more than lip service to the idea of helping those for whom gambling has become a dangerous obsession.
If a heavy drinker develops cirrhosis of the liver or a three-pack-a-day smoker gets cancer — and the government rakes in big money taxing both of those “sins” — the government doesn’t offer them cut-rate health care because they brought it on themselves.
So why isn’t the government prepared to spend more money helping gambling addicts?
The Finance Department pointed out that “Newfoundland and Labrador also invests significantly in mental health and addictions services. The total budget for this year is $86.7 million which covers approximately 140 staff throughout the province who provide direct mental health and/or addiction counselling.”
That’s a big chunk of change, but how many gambling addicts are receiving treatment versus drug addicts, I wonder.
The government has reduced the number of VLTs in play since 2004-05 by 25 per cent and has cut back on VLT operating hours, and those are actions worth applauding. Still, as then Telegram reporter Rob Antle noted in a story in August 2010, “the province was making more money from VLTs in 2009-10 than it was four years earlier — despite gamblers having nearly 600 fewer machines to play.”
The rationale that if the government got out of the gambling business organized crime would move in makes no sense. If the government banned VLTs, the police could crack down on anyone who tried to operate them here.
And I doubt that anyone who has bankrupted their household because of a gambling addiction takes any comfort from the fact that the activity is state-sanctioned.
In May 2010, the government resolved to “continue enhancing programming” to help problem gamblers.
If this government is truly serious about helping problem gamblers, it should either get out of the gambling business altogether or be prepared to offer far more support to those who desperately need it.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.