VLTs turning casual gamblers into addicts -- study

More than two-thirds of the VLT-addicts surveyed by a provincial government agency say they didn't have a gambling problem until they tried video lottery terminals.

The study, released Friday by the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, surveyed 84 problem VLT gamblers in 1996.

Most said they had gambled before, but more than two-thirds said VLTs led them to seek treatment.

"From the treatment side, what we see is the addictiveness of the VLTs," said Conservative MLA Jocelyn Burgener who chairs AADAC.

The sample is very small and only includes people who sought treatment from AADAC for VLT-addiction. But it leads to questions about whether accessibility to VLTs should be reduced or whether the machines should be slowed down to reduce their addictive qualities, said Burgener.

An upcoming provincial gambling summit, to be held April 23-25 in Medicine Hat, will address those issues and provide "solid information about what Albertans think about their gambling and some direction from them on how they think government should respond," she said. The summit will be chaired by former Alberta ombudsman Harley Johnson.

Burgener cautioned against blaming VLTs for all gambling problems.

"VLTs are the flashpoint, but we've had a history of gambling in this province for years and years."

Among the study's findings:

* The addicts played an average of six hours per session, 18 days per month.

* Well over half said they had a gambling debt; a quarter of them owed more than $15,000. About two-thirds said they gambled more than $500 a month on VLTs.

* Most financed their gambling through household money. About two- thirds used credit cards. One-third said they passed bad cheques to get gambling money.

* On average, the addicts had played VLTs for 30 months. They were aware they had a problem an average of 16 months before seeking treatment.

* The group included men and women of all ages from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and regions. More than half were men. Their average age was 38. Nearly half of them had less than a high school education. Those who worked full-time were most likely in sales or service jobs.

* Almost three-quarters of the addicts said near wins or small wins kept them interested in, or excited about playing. Just over half said big wins encouraged them to keep playing.