Problem gamblers hit hard

Lower The Stakes arrives as new Chances Maple Ridge opens

A small percentage of problem gamblers contribute an inordinate amount of money to the province’s gaming revenue.

Protecting these people is one of the goals of a new report, Lower The Stakes, released Wednesday by B.C.’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Perry Kendall.

According to the report, only 3.7 per cent of B.C. residents are moderately at risk, while 0.9 per cent are problem gamblers. But these groups contribute some 25 per cent of the province’s total gaming revenue.

Their losses constitute a health risk, according to Kendall, who also noted that mental health and addiction problems overlap with gambling addiction.

“The time is right for a fulsome discussion on the benefits and the risks.”

This issue is relevant locally, as a new Chances Maple Ridge Gaming Centre is set to open its doors to the public for the first time this coming Wednesday.

The report showed that in the decade ending in 2011, gaming revenue in B.C. has nearly doubled, from $1.1 billion to $2.1 billion. The rise per capita has gone from $353 to $552 per adult. The number of gaming machines per person has risen 210 per cent over a decade.

Alberta, B.C. and Manitoba all have higher gaming revenues than B.C., but the rest of the provinces are lower.

The social cost has been significant, as the number of problem gamblers has risen from 0.4 per cent to 0.9 per cent, or 31,100 people. Another 128,800 people are at risk.

The report offered numerous recommendations, including warning signs on machines that are known to carry the most risk for gambling addiction, and empowering casino staff to identify problem gamblers.

Patrons of the Maple Ridge Community Gaming Centre are aware of the issue of problem gaming.

Speaking with people who were coming and going from the soon-to-be-moved bingo hall on 227th Street on Wednesday afternoon, all said they set a limit of how much money they will gamble with, then quit when it’s gone. Most also said they see other gamblers playing slots who appear to be spending too much.

“Mixing the drinking and gambling is not a good thing,” said Diana Spani. “I don’t like that they’re getting a [liquor] licence at the new centre.”

She said Maple Ridge appears to have some problem gamblers, or people who are at risk of becoming so.

“There’s a lot who are in here every day – or at least every time I’m here, they’re here,” she said.

“I like that it’s here. I enjoy it.”

That sentiment was share by Hope resident Heather Dewar, who meets her sister in Maple Ridge on a regular basis, and they love to play the slots together.

“It’s a wonderful thing for us, and it’s what we enjoy doing,” she said. “We play $20 each, and that’s it.”

Chances is a community gathering place, they say. The gamers paint a picture of seniors who go to the gaming centre as a place to meet, and a social network of women who play bingo together.

Chuck Keeling, the executive director of stakeholder relations for Great Canadian, Casinos which will operate Chances Maple Ridge, said his company will await a government review of the recommendations before taking any action.

He said staff are already trained to identify problem gamblers, and initiate discussions that result in some customers seeking a voluntary self exclusion – meaning they are not allowed to gamble at the gaming centres.

Keeling said the “piece of paper” that licences Great Canadian to operate in Maple Ridge is not as important as what he called the “social licence.”

“We like to think of ourselves as responsible operators,” he said. “That’s our social licence – do people deem us to be a good corporate citizens.”

He acknowledged that Chances will be a place where people – many of them older – go to simply gather and socialize. To that end, he said the new facility will offer more live acts, meals and drinks.

“We want this to be more of an entertainment facility – not just gambling.”

Chief among the findings in the report is that B.C. underspends other provinces in prevention and treatment for problem gambling – it invests about half the national average on a per capita basis.

The report calls on the province to devote at least 1.5 per cent of gambling revenue to problem gambling initiatives, tripling the current outlay.

Liquor access is one area of risk the province could tighten, Kendall said, perhaps through reduced hours of alcohol service at casinos or by raising drink prices.

He said gambling delivers endorphins that stimulate pleasure centres of the brain.

“If you also have alcohol and add that to the mix and you’ve got an ATM there with an unlimited cash amount, you’ve definitely got a scenario where people are going to behave less and less responsibly.”

Banning ATMs or requiring players to set an advance limit on what they might spend is another idea advanced in the report.

It also zeroes in on high-risk electronic gaming machines – the slots designed by manufacturers to generate the most compulsive behaviour.

Kendall suggested they be replaced with lower-risk models and urged the province to post the risk rating on each machine so gamblers could choose a lower risk option.

Gerald Thomas, from the Centre for Addictions Research, a co-author of the report, said the province has high-, medium- and low-risk ratings for all of the slot machines in B.C. casinos and should disclose how many it has of each.

Any new decisions to expand gambling should come with an assessment of the risk to problem gamblers and be contingent on reducing the overall share of revenue extracted from them, the report recommends.

It  also urges school classes to warn children of the dangers of gambling, focusing on students in Grades 10 to 12.

The $2.1-billion a year industry delivers nearly $900 million in net profits to government.

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong said in a statement the province this year increased its Responsible Gambling program budget by 30 per cent.

“We take the social costs of gambling seriously,” he said, adding the province and BCLC will provide $11 million for responsible gambling this year.

De Jong said the province is committed to continually improving but will review the performance of its current programs before considering any more spending.

– with files from Jeff Nagel

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