Pandora's Box

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic September, 2016

Victoria and the Province are blind to the real costs of gambling.

Illustration by April CaverhillTHROUGH THE SUMMER, the wires crackled with the news that Victoria has become the latest winner in the BC Lottery Corporation’s coveted casino lottery. Yes, a casino is coming to town, and while we don’t yet know exactly where and when, there’s plenty of political keenness on the accompanying plum, an annual cheque for about $2 million for the bother of “hosting” the venture. Mayor Lisa Helps has called the coup a “win for everybody.”

But is it all good news? While the easy message, the officially-sanctioned one, is that government-sponsored gambling in general, and casinos in particular, are always an asset because they return copious wealth to community coffers and fund altruistic projects that otherwise might not happen, the plain truths about gambling have always been these: 1. Players bear all of the risk and most are certain to lose their money. 2. The gambling establishment operates risk-free and never loses. 

If it were otherwise, the government wouldn’t be in the business, because it couldn’t afford the risk. Fifteen years ago the Liberals might have been on higher moral ground when they promised during their 2001 election campaign not to expand the gambling industry, but that ground and principle have long since crumbled. Instead, the powerful, crown-owned BCLC has succeeded in creating a lavishly-branded, happy-face industry that quietly and unfailingly harvests hefty profits for the Province by providing an ever- increasing array of “exceptional entertainment for adults.” 

The 2014-15 fiscal year alone brought in a net profit of $1.25 billion, according to the BCLC website. Even after subtracting various routine payouts, including a transfer of $13.5 million to the government’s own Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch, there was still $829 million left over for deposit into general revenue. Who knew fun could be so lucrative? 

The not-nearly-as-pretty downside of gambling is much more difficult to assess. The non-partisan, non-profit Toronto-based Wellesley Institute claims that’s partially because, “Problem gambling is not well-defined in debates about gambling, [which] can lead to the assumption that unless the gambling is compulsive, it is healthy, responsible and low risk.” (The Real Cost of Casinos, 2013). 

The BCLC website’s own breezy language might leave you convinced that gambling-related issues are minimal and under control, but many studies show clear correlations between access to casinos, increased problem gambling, and increased social dysfunction. Much of that dysfunction is costly—think medical intervention, policing and social assistance—and all of it is misery pouring outward onto innocent others, including children. Typically, one problem gambler’s fallout negatively impacts up to 10 other people and can cost between $20,000 and $56,000 annually. Given that BCLC’s own commissioned research has identified at least 125,000 known problem gamblers in the province, that’s a huge liability. (Victoria, take note: Much of it falls on municipal shoulders.)

The added paradox, the real controversy, is that problem gamblers—who bring in an estimated 40 percent of all gambling revenue—are both the industry’s best clients and most urgent candidates for addictions treatment. Since BCLC both grows the industry and funds the treatment that, if successful, will reduce gambling and therefore revenue, the conflict of interest is starkly obvious. And given that BCLC allocates only a paltry .5 percent of gambling’s net profits to “prevention and services,” its penuriousness speaks volumes about its priorities, as did its detached response to a recent troubling story in the media about an elder who lost $300,000 to gambling. 

Gambling is every government’s dilemma, a Pandora’s Box just too good to keep closed. Singapore tried to have it both ways when it began allowing casinos in 2010. Hungry for gambling tourists but not gambling strife among its own people, it imposed on residents a per-visit admission of about $100 CAD. The hefty deterrent led to nothing: Singapore now has twice as many residents seeking gambling addiction treatment as it did in 2010. 

All this is just a scratch on the surface of this mercurial industry, but one thing is quite certain: Victoria would do well to dig a lot deeper before taking any gamble.

Trudy isn’t much of a gambler but couldn't resist a game of Chicken Shit Bingo at the recent Salt Spring Island Music and Garlic Festival. The chicken did not pick her number.