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Still, VLT gambling, never hugely popular with the public overall—only about four per cent are regular VLT players–is under increasing pressure.
NSGC’s business partner, the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, is facing a possible class-action suit in Newfoundland, filed by the father of a VLT addict who died of a drug overdose in 2003. In his statement of claim Keith Piercey alleges. “Her death was a suicide caused by the addictive and deceptive nature of VLTs.”
The suit has not yet been certified by the court. The allegations are unproven and have yet to be proven or accepted by a court. The defendants have a right to file a defence to these allegations.
Atlantic Lottery Corporation declined to be interviewed for this story.
There were 2,241 VLTS operating in bars, clubs and legions in this province as of December 31, according to the lottery corporation. Another nearly 600 machines on reserves bring the total to near 3,000. They still bring in a lot of money, though about $40 million less than before the 1,000 machines came out.
Total net revenues are now about 17 per cent off the peak in 2004-2005, but the huge increase in reserve gambling, and the increase in revenues from non-reserve VLTs last year, has pushed the net revenue figure close to about the $200 million. From that, the government gets about $100 million, with $30 million going as commissions to businesses housing machines, a portion going to ALC to run the system, and the rest, about $50 million, going to First Nations, with Membertou and Millbrook getting the biggest shares.
A lot, but also a little
It seems like a lot of money, and when looked at from the perspective of the ordinary people ending up bankrupt, in criminal court, or just miserable, it seems huge. When compared to the overall government budget of $9 billion it doesn’t seem quite so large, a little more than one per cent of government spending and about half the amount the government will raise through the two per cent HST hike in the recent budget.
But the Dexter government isn’t showing any signs of moving quickly on the VLT file. In fact, it seems to be downplaying its importance in favour of a discussion about Internet gambling, which it says is now the real threat.
“VLTs seem to be fading into the past,” Steele says.
The government killed a socio-economic study into gambling that had been ordered by the previous government, and Dexter has completely backed away from his proposal when he was opposition leader to have a binding plebiscite on banning VLTs.
“What we have seen is a change in the whole mosaic of gambling where much of this has moved online and you would likely end up with an even bigger problem than you have now. If you get rid of them what happens is you either drive them underground or online” Dexter said April 28.
Steele is just starting the process to develop a new gaming strategy, and says Internet gambling will be a key question, although the discussion will also consider the future of VLTs.
He acknowledges that the continued destruction of lives and finances by the gambling machines uncovered by the King’s investigation is a “big problem” but he says the issue is finding the right balance between offering the product and dealing with its effects.
But while the government seems sure that VLTs are fading as an issue, experts and people on the front lines have another story to tell, as do official numbers.
Into the harbour
Jerome Aucoin, the addictions counsellor, knows what he would do if given the chance.
“They don’t serve any real entertainment value,” he says. “Even if you have the casinos where you can go in and play cards and stuff like that – there might be some value in that. But the machines are just hypnotic machines. I don’t see any value in them at all – mentally, or physically, spiritually or emotionally – for people or their families. I’d like to see them thrown in the harbour.
“Now, that being said, I’m also saying I don’t think they’ll do that – though it’d be wonderful if they did. I think Nova Scotia would really shine around the world because everybody has this problem.”
Problem gamblers continue to contribute an estimated $100 million a year in losses through VLTs, adding to more than a billion dollars in losses accumulated since VLTs were introduced in the 1990s.
Steele is dismissive of the latter figure, saying “If you take any number and multiply it by 15 it sounds pretty big.”
But critics of VLTs say the issue is far from over. “Can you imagine,” asks Bruce Dienes, a part-time psychology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, “if you were selling a car, where 25 per cent of the regular drivers got in an accident, how long would you be permitted to sell that car?”
“Why would you, as a government, endorse a product which you know is significantly harming your population and there is no possible social benefit of this?”
Back in New Waterford, Grant says “People have got to realize, you’re not going to win. It’s not here for you to win; it’s here for the government to make money.”