The spread of VLT addiction

Three years ago, in an effort to save Quebecers from themselves, the provincial government passed legislation to govern video lottery terminals (VLTs). Sounding responsibly prim, the government announced that there would be only 15,065 of them in 4,370 licensed establishments, to which people under 18 years of age would not be admitted.

This was meant to be - and actually was - an improvement over the previous situation. In 1993, there were 45,000 illegal video lottery machines in Quebec, installed not just in bars and taverns but also in corner stores, accessible to anyone who walked in looking for a quart of milk.

But fewer and slightly less accessible VLTs was not the only improvement that flowed from the government's intervention. There was also the money. Tons of it. Last year, Quebec made a net profit of $246 million. VLTs accounted for 26.5 per cent of the over-all $918 million in government profits from gambling.

It's hard not to believe that all that money hasn't influenced the government's thinking about this type of gambling. It continues to behave as if VLTs aren't causing serious addiction problems, particularly among young people.

Quebec's bar and tavern owners aren't quite so unconcerned. This week, they worried aloud that under-age gamblers are being allowed access to VLTs, one of the cheapest and most addictive forms of gambling. The bar owners are nervous that a backlash may develop in Quebec against these machines, much as has happened in other provinces.

Obviously, the bar owners are acting out of self-interest. The average yearly profit per VLT is $31,000. With the maximum five machines per establishment, a tidy $155,000 a year ends up in the bar owner's hands without much effort on his part. And the owners are not happy that restaurants and other commercial establishments are getting licenses to operate VLTs, too.

Even so, the bar owners are showing more prescience than the provincial government. The news coming out of Alberta, one of the few provinces where there's a systematic effort to study the VLTs' impact, is all bad.

A study made public last week found that two-thirds of VLT addicts said they did not have a gambling problem until they tried VLTs. The money dumped into these machines is astronomical. One town, Drayton Valley, lost $4 million to them, just $1 million less than the town's annual budget.

And at least Albertans have an option that Quebecers don't. Individual towns can hold plebiscites to get rid of the machines, and several towns have done just that.

There are two things the Quebec government must do before VLTs do more harm. It must impose severe sanctions on any establishment that allows minors to use these machines. The bar or tavern should lose the gambling machines along with its alcohol permit, plus be hit with a fine totaling the year's profits.

Quebec must also allow municipalities to act in the best interests of their residents. If townspeople decide they do not want to be home to bars with video gambling machines, they should have the right to keep them out of their municipality.

VLT Addiction Rising

Provincial revenues from video lottery terminals (VLTs) have increased 137 per cent in the past decade, according to Auditor General John Noseworthy's annual review of departments and Crown agencies.

Noseworthy's report, released Wednesday, says VLTs accounted for $76 million of the $108 million in revenues this province received from the Atlantic Lottery Corp. in 2004.

The comparable figure from VLTs in 1995 was $32 million.

The auditor general's report comes on the heels of an Addictions Treatment Services Association (ATSA) report released Monday and calling on the province to strictly enforce existing regulations and take further measures to deal with VLT gambling addiction.

In his report, the auditor general makes reference to a Statistics Canada study that indicated that in 2002, 330,000 individuals in this province over the age of 15 participated in and spent money on some form of gambling activity.

"Furthermore," Noseworthy said, "Statistics Canada has indicated that 6.3 per cent of these individuals are at risk or are already problem gamblers. This equates to some 20,800 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who are at risk or are already problem gamblers."

Noseworthy said Newfoundland is the only province in Canada that has not conducted its own prevalence study to determine the extent of the problem.

Health and Community Services Minister John Ottenheimer, however, announced Tuesday that the provincial government is planning to hire a firm to research, analyze data and present a final report on the prevalence of gambling and addictions. A request for proposals will be issued in February and it is anticipated that the study will be completed in four to six months.

According to the auditor general's report, about $4.1 million is spent annually by the province's four health and community services boards, two integrated health-care boards and the Health Care Corp. of St. John's to deliver all addictions programs, including those tackling alcohol, drugs, tobacco and gambling.

There are about 50 employees throughout the province who deliver addictions programs.

The boards, however, have indicated that they do not have sufficient resources to meet the demand for gambling addiction rehabilitation and, as a result, several boards had wait lists last year. For example, as of Sept. 30. 2004, the eastern region had a wait list of six, central, 20 and western, 17.

The auditor general said one board pointed out that "research indicates (individuals requiring gambling rehabilitation) does not usually follow through when they are wait listed."

As a result, he said, there are likely people out there who sought help for their gambling addiction but did not get the help they needed.

In addition to a prevalence study, Noseworthy has recommended that adequate information be made available to plan and monitor addictions programming.

He said this information should include statistics on the number of clients with gambling addictions who were referred, treated and wait listed, as well as information on the cost of providing addiction programs and the amount of time spent by staff on each program.

Noseworthy has also recommended standard programs for gambling rehabilitation and a strategy for delivering a provincial education and awareness program.

As well, he said, the government should ensure that a one per cent VLT retailer fee for gambling addictions programming is matched by the government and included in a separate budget so that it can be monitored to ensure that the funds are spent for the intended purpose.

Finance Minister Loyola Sullivan said Monday the Progressive Conservatives have acted to honour a commitment on addictions' funding made by the Liberals nine years ago which they didn't keep.

Sullivan said it was agreed that one per cent of net revenues from VLTs from the beverage industry and the government would be put into addictions' programs, which was initially about $150,000 each. In recent years, the minister said, the industry has been putting in about $350,000 to $400,000 annually, but the government hadn't been contributing anything extra until about a year ago, when Premier Danny Williams announced an additional $100,000 in addictions funding.