Gambling addiction and the lives it destroys

It's been 2 1/2 years since her son Trevor killed himself and Phyllis Vineberg is only now beginning to come to terms with what happened.

Gambling killed her son. He was an addict to the crack-cocaine of the gambling world - video lottery terminals, the flashy kind you see in bars. He had tried to beat the addiction several times during the nine years he played VLTs.

But in the end, it took his money and career. It took his dignity, self-control and self-respect. And ultimately, it took his will to live. Deep in debt and ashamed, he killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in a car in his parents' garage a few weeks before his 26th birthday.

Not everyone who gambles ends up like Trevor Vineberg. The vast majority - studies show 98 per cent - can play VLTs, bet and lose their money, and not get hooked. But for 2 per cent, gambling is compulsive and pathological.

Some addicts do kill themselves. Many more lose their savings, RRSPs, houses, cars, marriages and friends before they get help. At this very moment, there are people out there pumping coins they can't afford to lose into government-owned VLTs. People ready to steal or lie to feed their habit. Sick people who need help.

It's a growing social curse. Yet, there is precious little debate about the damage it causes. No debate about how the provincial government is increasingly addicted to gambling revenues and looking for ways to get more. No debate about the government's moral responsibility to help addicts.

In short, precious little concern about a fast-growing scourge. And precious little help for the thousands of people, like the Vinebergs, who desperately need it.

Loto-Quebec rakes in millions from its casinos, lotteries and VLTs - $918 million in clear profit for the government this year.

Yet Quebec puts almost nothing into education, prevention or treatment of gambling addiction. Sure, VLTs, when not in use, urge people to gamble "with moderation." And Loto-Quebec, through its subsidiary that operates VLTs, claims it spends $1 million to promote moderation, to help fund a referral help-line and university research projects into gambling addiction. These are worthy efforts.

But it's not nearly enough. It doesn't even begin to address the social and personal problems created by legal gambling. On all counts - prevention, education and treatment of gambling addiction - the government fails miserably.

Would you know how to spot a problem gambler? Would you know where to look for help? Did you know that if you're an addict and need treatment or counseling, you have to pay for it yourself?

VLTs are among the most seductive and addictive forms of gambling. The action and lights of the game are hypnotizing. And unlike casinos, VLTs are as close as the nearest bar.

VLTs are easy to play and you don't have to be rich to lose - the machines take bets anywhere from 5 cents to $2.50 on games like blackjack, poker or keno.

In Quebec, there are 15,065 machines in 4,370 bars, taverns and licensed restaurants. Quebecers lost $466 million in these machines last year. Of that, the Bouchard government took the lion's share of the loot, turning a clear profit of $243 million. Bar-owners pocketed $140 million. Profits amounted to about $31,000 per machine. Soon the machines will accept $20 bills so that people won't have to interrupt their gambling to buy rolls of coins - a move that will boost the take.

The profits have kept climbing for Quebec City. In 1994, when Quebec took over the gambling industry and put its first 6,000 machines in bars, the province made $18 million profit. In 1995-96 with 14,000 machines, VLT profits for government had soared to $140 million.

With a quarter-billion-plus a year at stake from VLTs alone, Quebec City is in no hurry to help addicts. VLTs are a bonanza for government, a tax on the stupid and weak.

Gambling has no socially redeeming value - none whatsoever. It may be fun for some who can afford to lose. But gambling can cause severe hardship and misery for addicts and their families.

Quebec should do much more than profit from their weakness. The government has a moral obligation to fund research, prevention and treatment programs properly.