Lead story 2/8
Fewer people playing, but more problems
Now, five years later, an investigation by University of King’s College journalism students has found that the much-touted gaming strategy has failed to halt the destruction of lives and finances by the mesmerizing gambling machines. VLTs are still the main source of gambling addiction in Nova Scotia.
The province has spent millions on adding treatment programs since the strategy was implemented, a preliminary study suggested the VLT changes had some early impact, and there are fewer people playing VLTs regularly. But among those players that remain, the proportion of regular players reporting gambling problems went up by 67 per cent from 2003 to 2007, according to the government’s most recent gambling prevalence study. Regular players spent more too.
A team of King’s students fanned out across Nova Scotia, interviewing players, addiction therapists, researchers, aboriginal leaders, politicians, bankruptcy trustees, a provincial court judge and many others. Among the findings of the six-week student investigation, laid out in a series of articles on this site, in the Coast and on CBC news:
- People on the front lines say they continue to see new addicts, bankrupt gamblers, and people committing crimes, all so they can feed ever more money into VLTs;
- A boom in largely unregulated VLT gambling on First Nations reserves has created an enormous loophole in the gaming strategy. Unlike VLTs elsewhere, those on reserves can operate up to 23 hours a day and by having two locations with different closing times, a reserve can run VLTs around the clock;
- While the government did remove machines, the ones that remained took up some of the slack, and in some of the poorest areas of the province, revenues have been increasing rapidly;
- Even the most aggressive of the government’s gaming-strategy measures – a card that players will use to log onto a VLT – won’t stop people losing everything they have on the machines. And now, the Dexter government is musing about weakening it further by making its use completely voluntary. Critics charge that the “responsible gaming” strategies adopted by Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation amount to a public relations exercise designed to shift the blame, and liability, for gambling addiction to the victims while allowing the government to continue to collect people’s losses.
More problem gamblers
Government officials acknowledge something is wrong.
Carolyn Davison, director of Addiction Services with the Nova Scotia Department of Health, chooses her words carefully, saying the strategy was effective in delivering a message “that the safety of Nova Scotians comes first and then profits second.” But “if you wanted to know whether the gaming strategy had any impact on the rates of problem gambling, it didn’t. So, we didn’t see any change in the number of people really gambling with a problem.”
The number at risk but not actually having problems, went down from 4.8 to 3.6 per cent between the gambling prevalence studies in 2003 and 2007. But the percentage actually with gambling problems went up slightly to 2.5 per cent and “appears to be slowly moving upward,” the report says.
And Nova Scotia has lost its status as having the lowest rate of problem gambling in the country and now can only claim to be among the lowest.
Nineteen thousand Nova Scotians have some level of gambling problem.
“And the reason why it concerns me is that if people are experiencing greater problems,” Davison says, “then they’re experiencing more financial harm and, you know, their relationships are at risk, their jobs are at risk, their house is at risk, you know, their family’s income is at risk.” Davison says the cost burden of problem gambling, including health care costs and lost income, is greater than the revenues the gambling brings in.
Overwhelmingly, VLTs are the culprit, mentioned far more often as causing problems than any other form of gambling, according to the 2007 prevalence study and those interviewed for this story. While fewer people are playing VLTs, the percentage of regular, monthly VLT players who said they were having problems went up from 16 to 27 per cent.