Gambling women face rising addiction rate

When the glitzy Casino Windsor first opened, Paula plunked $100 into a slot machine. Within months she was lying to her husband, sneaking from the house and losing thousands.

``I would say I was going grocery shopping, but I would go to the casino all day. It was a euphoria I could not get anywhere else. I loved the sounds of a slot machine, the lights were like stars. I would go into a daydream.''

She lost $30,000. So Paula asked casino security to ban her.

An ongoing study by University of Windsor researchers suggests she isn't alone. ``Women may be closing the gap in their level of gambling problems previously dominated by men,'' says psychologist Ron Frish.

His group is the first in Canada to compare gambling levels before and after a casino came to town. A survey of more than 3,000 Windsor residents found no significant changes in the level of pathological gambling among men. But more women are getting hooked.

Before the casino opened, between 0.3 and 1.3 per cent of women surveyed were categorized as problem gamblers. A year later, the numbers had almost doubled to between 0.8 and 2 per cent.

The range in percentages accounts for a margin of error and Frish stresses the statistics only indicate a trend. But it's a trend noted by addiction counsellors across Canada, except British Columbia, the only province without casinos or video lottery terminals.

Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia all run casinos. Video terminals, already available in the Prairies and Atlantic provinces, are to be introduced in Ontario, Finance Minister Ernie Eves announced in his budget last week.

Like many others, Susan Olynik of Manitoba Lotteries points to the good that comes from gambling profits. ``The money funds health research, rural development, cultural programs, training initiatives.''

But critics wonder if governments have become so addicted to the cash they're blind to the social problems.

``It's a contradiction in the government's role,'' says Gary Smith, who has researched gambling for more than a decade at the University of Alberta. ``They're supposed to protect, but governments are introducing something that is dangerous to some people.''

Smith is especially critical of video lottery terminals, ``the crack cocaine of gambling.'' The machines are highly addictive because they give credit - not coins - for money won and operate at high speed.

The first day Mandy plunked loonies into one of Alberta's 5,700 terminals she won $500. In three years, she went from betting $60 to $600 a day.

``I kept saying, `This will be my last day.' I would pray at night: `God let me stay away from those machines.' But they were everywhere.''

Neither woman fits the stereotype of a gambling addict. Paula was a bank manager; Mandy is a mother and computer specialist. Both turned to gambling as a result of other problems - marriage troubles, financial stress.

``Men seem to do it for excitement,'' says Frish. ``Women do it for escape.''

Boris wears adult diapers, but incontinence isn't his problem - it's slot machines. His gambling addiction is so severe he won't risk losing the seat at his favorite poker machine at Casino Windsor, not even for the demands of his bladder. Boris, not his real name, hit rock bottom m many years ago when he lost everything, says Harvey Simon, a former gambling addict who hascounselled Boris and other compulsive gamblers for years.

After a couple of years putting his life back together, he made an unfortunate return to the slot machines.

Boris's dependence on Depends is just one of many twisted practices that occurs at gambling venues across the country, anti- gambling groups say.

"I've heard all kinds of horror stories," said Carol Mernick of the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling.

"But gambling addicts are totally unaware that this type of behavior is unreasonable. It is such a devastating illness."

Intelligent and otherwise logical people will abandon reason when they are in the grip of compulsive gambling, she said.

"The worst thing in the world would be for them to give up their machine for five minutes and while they're gone, someone else sits at it and hits the jackpot.

"So in the morning they take a Thermos of coffee and a little lunch, strap on the Depends and when they gotta go, they go."

Many children, banned from entering gaming venues, get locked inside cars while their parents gamble.

Nick Rupcich, regional director for the anti-gambling foundation's Windsor branch, said management is generally reluctant to speak about their problems.

Last month, a health and safety study from the Canadian Auto Workers representing Windsor casino employees, and the Winnipeg government employees union, detailed a list of difficulties casino workers currently endure.

Shirley Eagan, head of the CAW's health and safety committee, said:

"I've heard about the diapers, but people also urinate right on the seat, and some - I assume it's men - urinate into the coin bucket."