Addiction to slot machines, VLTs

I always thought that Las Vegas was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't choose to live there. However, with the escalation of gambling facilities in Edmonton, there soon won't be much of a choice.

The latest on the scene is a machine the government calls a video lottery. By definition these mechanical monsters are not lotteries, they are slot machines and should be called such.

I have watched as people have become addicted to playing the slots, and have seen some lose everything they owned. The slots are not recreation, they are a plague on our society. And what really upsets me is that the government is responsible for this plague, and have brought it upon us on purpose.

The government didn't ask us if we wanted slot machines in this province. There was no referendum, but can anyone imagine slot machines receiving approval? Slot machines are addictive, and are bringing financial havoc to thousands of Albertans.

The advertising bar on the slot machine reads "Alberta lotteries - source of many benefits." That's like labelling cigarette packages "Smoke more - your money helps the community."

And where do the profits go? The list of beneficiaries is long, and in my opinion, none are worth the financial ruin of one Albertan, let alone thousands. Northlands gets $5,000,000; Parks and Wildlife Foundation $15,000,000; Ex Terra foundation $2,000,000; and although Deputy Premier Ken Kowalski hates the phrase "slush fund," in the current year $85,000,000 goes to general revenue.

Opposition missingAnd where was the Opposition during the invasion of the slot machines? Where were our business, religious, and municipal leaders? Are slot machines okay in your city, Mayor Reimer? Is this all okay with everyone? I think not.

Let's hear from people until there is an uproar against the slots. Maybe we can get rid of them, and wouldn't it be nice if we could get rid of Kowalski at the same time.

ore local residents are seeking treatment for gambling addictions as mounting losses threaten to strangle them financially.

Between 50 and 70 problem gamblers or family members are expected to appear for help during the next year according to Jim Spradbrow, a counselor with Lambton County Addiction Services.

And that's more than five times the number of people seen during 1996, the first year the centre started dealing with gambling addiction. In the early years, bingo and lottery tickets were the most common addictions.

Today, it is slot machines.

"Slots have taken over as the number one addiction. It can take just a minute and a half to lose $20," said Spradbrow.

But a win can bring immediate gratification.

"That's what attracts people," he said.

Numbers started increasing at the centre within months of the first slot machines opening at Hiawatha Horse Park and the problem has continued with the opening of the Point Edward Charity Casino. These venues have provided greater access for existing addicts but Spradbrow said they've also increased the number of addicts. People who had exhibited no previous problem with gambling are appearing at the treatment centre, which is part of Sarnia General Hospital.

These are people might have been to Las Vegas once, but when they entered the local venues the high they got from the possibility of big wins kept them playing.

"They never really gambled til the slots came," he said.

Gambling addicts are people for whom gambling has created negative consequences in their lives. It is not tied to a specific dollar loss.

Financial strain is the motivation for addicts to seek help. Often a family member approaches the center first looking for help to deal with the strain of living with a problem gambler who is not ready for change.

Gamblers can be quite creative in hiding or finding ways to bail themselves out of the financial jam. People with a wallet of "maxed- out" credit cards are common.

Such juggling helps addicts maintain their denial of the problem. Counsellors need to increase the addict's accountability for the money problems so the denial can be broken down.

Spradbrow sometimes directs addicts to credit counseling but he is concerned a gambler will take the counseling as another way out of the financial trouble. Once out, they head back to the slot machines.

At the machines, they keep "chasing their losses" certain they can win enough to solve the crisis gambling has created.

Despite the ability of most gamblers to understand the odds are in favour of the house, they keep trying.

Spradbrow's difficulty as a counselor is that he can't guarantee a gambler that they won't win.

So addicts let distorted thinking keep them in front of the machines. As an experiment, he asks them to stop all gambling, even the once-a -week purchase of a lottery ticket.

For a gambling addict, letting go of this habit can be difficult, which is a clear indicator of their addiction.

Examples of distorted thinking abound even when the facts hit gamblers like an ice-ball facial.

Bingo addicts will phone the hall to learn who is calling the bingo numbers. They won't go if the wrong caller is on duty. There's no connection between the caller and the numbers called.

Other such distorted thinking shows itself in the rituals gamblers follow. One player was certain when he heard the cooling fan on a machine kick in that it was time to move to another machine. Machines that are literally hot don't pay off, according to that gambler's distortion.

Others play only certain machines, confident they are the ones that pay off.

Machines with a variety of movements and sounds are part of the addiction. When they are focused on the machine, gamblers lose track of their surroundings and even of time. Gamblers tell Spradbrow they are unaware of how long they were at the slots.

Lambton has one full-time gambling addiction counselor. The government moved to supply 44 Ontario centres with one gambling addiction staff member.

Spradbrow said it is difficult to know if the demand will make an additional counselor necessary. While numbers are increasing it is not a steady pattern.

In March, there were 10 new referrals in two weeks while other months go by without a single referral to the centre.

"It's a comfortable place, people listen, you can get help," he said.

Just how invasive and harmful are slot machines?

North Saanich Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Williams was asked by council to delve into the issue and come up with the statistics. The trouble is, there aren't many to report. His research showed there simply has not been a lot of study done yet around the effects of slot machines in a community.

Williams included several case studies in his report, including from Statistics Canada; Native American Casino Gambling in Arizona: A Case Study of Fort McDowell Reservation (Arizona State University); Gambling and Problem Gambling Among Native Americans in North America (1993); Estimating the Prevalence of Disordered Gambling Behaviour in the United States and Canada (Harvard Medical School, Division on Addictions) and others. He also included several newspaper articles on the subject.

Many of the reports agreed that it was not possible to compare the American experience with the Canadian, as crime rates in Canada are so much lower than in the US. And there was difficulty coming up with a definition of what was universally meant by problem gambling." A recommendation by Douglas M. Walker, Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics in Georgia College & State University, was that, as a starting point, a single definition of social costs and an agreement on acceptable measurement methods is necessary. He suggests that balancing social costs against actual economics is not possible.

- for the items that are legitimately considered to be social costs, i.e., if they decrease the aggregate wealth in society, then we should attempt to measure their value. For all of the other negative effects of pathological gambling that do not decrease aggregate wealth, or that do so in a way that cannot be adequately measures (e.g., psychic costs), then we should only identify these effects and suggest ways to decrease their severity. But we should not attempt to arrive at dollar figures for these effects, since the estimates are likely to be unreliable.

This solution would be easier to follow if politicians and the public were not so hungry for quick answers. Unfortunately, it is very simply to just compare a total cost and benefit estimates, regardless of their conceptual validity, and make decisions on that basis."

In the final report prepared for the City of Vancouver, titled Introducing Slots at the Hastings Racecourse (May 17, 2004), the writer states: - one of the obstacles to understanding the impact that slot machines may have on the community surrounding Hastings Park specifically, and on the City of Vancouver more generally, is that no studies have been undertaken that specifically focus on the social impact of slot machines. Of the few impact studies that do exist, virtually all have focused either on casinos - with or without electronic gaming machines - or on video lottery terminals [VLT]."

Is there a significant difference between slot machines and VLTs? That question was also posed to council last week. According to the same report on Hastings Racecourse, the writer said the key differences between these two electronic gambling forms involve (a) how wins are recorded and paid out, and b) where the machines are located.

For VLTs, wins and losses typically appear as credits or dollars on the video terminal screen. As play progresses, credits/dollars fluctuate up or down until reduced to zero or the player redeems the credits. - slot machines are 'coin-in, coin-out'; the winnings are paid in coins immediately and directly to the player."

In each of the communities that have had the discussions around the social impact of slot machines, there have been the same issues: that gambling can become a serious addiction which causes the individual problem gambler and his/her family to suffer; the addition of slots will cause increased suicide rates, divorce and family breakdown; that machine gaming" such as the slots is directly linked to pathological gambling; that there will be an increase in crime in the area around the gaming venue.

These studies show there is a link between gaming and social problems; on the other hand, in cross-sectional prevalence studies conducted in BC in 1993, 1996 and in 2003, the study authors acknowledged the limitations of their efforts to compare the results of the three studies; nonetheless, they reported - data showed there was virtually no change in the prevalence rate for problem gamblers in British Columbia over the past decade."

But even the study admonishes itself: given the study limitations - this conclusion is questionable."

That's what North Saanich council is left with: how to make a decision on the expansion of gaming, when so little is known?

Coun. Keith Thomas asked just that question, saying perhaps there should be no decision until more is known. Mayor Ted Daly pointed out that, at the present, council has no decision to make - the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation has not put any proposal on the table. He moved to receive the report until a business plan came forward.

Resident Patrick Godfrey disagreed, saying, It's not hypothetical right now. A business plan will come to council." He also stated that the fact the slots will be bringing a lot of money into the community - the amount of money that will come into the community is not that much, but those who make the money can influence the politicians."

Coun. Heather Goulet, chair for the committee of the whole, said the social impact is a big issue, and that council needs to give the discussion on whether to add slots to Sandown considerable weight."

Thomas repeated his question about what should be done with the report. Daly replied that council could receive it, give a copy to the GCGC, and when a business plan comes to council, ask them how they plan to address these social impacts.

His motion passed unanimously.

A giant roulette wheel - the enduring symbol of such places - commands the entrance between the twin curving staircases of Casino Windsor. Beyond that, wherever you look, is an endless vista of slot machines. These aren't the one-armed bandits of old, where you dropped in a coin and pulled a lever. Now you just touch a button. Everything is electronic and the random spin of the reels is dictated by a computer chip. In the few years since such gambling was legalized in much of North America, these machines - called video lottery terminals - have become the fling of choice for millions of people. You see them everywhere, from dingy bars in Goose Bay, Nfld., and corner stores in Fredericton to pricey hotels in Calgary and casinos in five provinces. In front of them are hunched and silent figures with a handful of loonies trying to win a jackpot. Now, after years of debate, VLTs are coming to Ontario in big numbers.

Finance Minister Ernie Eves gave the green light in his budget to a network of as many as 20,000 video slots in licensed premises. That will leave British Columbia as the only province to resist the siren song of VLTs.

In 1991, $10 million was poured into the electronic machines in the four Atlantic provinces. By last year that amount had skyrocketed to $247 million. The jump is impressive, but the total is not when compared with Alberta's experience. Last year the people of Alberta, with only two-thirds as many slot machines, spent $1.5 billion. Experts on gambling addiction say the number of problem gamblers is growing dramatically and most of the difficulties come from people hooked on the new slot machines, which critics call "the crack cocaine of gambling." Garry Smith, a gambling specialist at the University of Alberta, describes the appeal of video slot machines: "First of all, it's the speed at which you can play.

You can complete a game cycle in about 1 1/2 seconds once you're adept at playing. And because of that you get the feeling that you're constantly in action. "That's what gamblers seek, this tingle of excitement when they're playing all the time. And they control the speed of the play, which you don't in most other forms of gambling, where it's the dealer or something else that controls the speed. Here you can play as fast as you can." The onward march of the slot machine in Canada has had only a few significant reversals. Three years ago, the Nova Scotia government, alarmed by what it had created, abruptly removed 2,500 slot machines from such places as corner stores. Another 2,800 VLTs remain, but they are restricted to licensed premises. Alberta originally approved plans for 8,600 video slots, but four months ago it capped the number of machines at 6,000 after a sharp rise in public uneasiness about the spread of video gambling and a rise in gambling addiction.

Last May, British Columbia, which has perhaps 10,000 illegal slot machines, dropped plans to legalize video gambling, forgoing more than $100 million a year in anticipated tax revenues. It is the effect of video gambling on young people that has caused most concern among experts charting the impact of North America's new craze. Gambling in some form or another has always been around, but today's adolescents are the first generation to grow up in a culture where it is legal and unremarkable. There is little moral stigma. Possibly that's why gambling difficulties among adolescents are significantly higher than among adults. Ron Frisch, a psychologist at the University of Windsor, began to survey attitudes to gambling last year as the city prepared for the opening of its new casino.

He was shocked by the results. His survey of 965 teens found that eight per cent were already problem gamblers and a further nine per cent were potential problem gamblers. That is three times the adult rates for gambling addiction. "Whether that rate drops as they mature, or whether it remains high because our society encourages gambling and accepts gambling in schools, in churches, I don't know." Marshall Pollock, president of Ontario Video Gaming Corp., is among those who want to bring video gambling to the bars and restaurants of Ontario. He sees video gambling as essentially another social activity - an entertainment opportunity and a stimulation for the hospitality industry.

There are a few people who can't handle gambling just as some can't handle eating or drinking, he says. So the industry should try to help out those who overindulge and let the others get on with their fun. "I don't think society's role is to tell people how to spend their money," Pollock says. "I think gambling is certainly better for you than smoking. . . . I don't have any difficulty with people playing on a modest basis." But Prof. Smith at the University of Alberta points to the experience of his province, where there has been a sharp increase in problem gambling. He wouldn't legalize video slots because they are, he says, "the most dangerous form of gambling out there."

A look at video lottery terminals across Canada:

Newfoundland: Has 2,165 video lottery terminals in licensed bars and restaurants. They produced revenue of $49 million for the province in fiscal 1994-95.

Nova Scotia: Decided in 1993 to confine video gambling machines to licensed establishments after two years of unrestricted distribution. Some 2,885 VLTs remain in use and produce revenue of $90 million a year. There are also two casinos - in Halifax and Sydney - the only ones in Atlantic Canada.

Prince Edward Island: Earns annual revenue of $14 million from 607 VLTs. They have been approved for a wide variety of unlicensed outlets; about a third are in bars and restaurants.

New Brunswick: About a third of the 3,721 VLTs are in licensed premises. Others in corner stores, snack bars and convenience stores. Revenue for the government from the last fiscal year reporting was $91 million.

Quebec: Introduced VLTs two years ago. For fiscal 1994-95, gamblers spent $60 million. With 14,500 machines in licensed premises, the government predicts video gambling for the past year will show revenues of $300 million - second only to Alberta - with a benefit to the province of $140 million. There are three casinos, in Montreal, Hull and Pointe-au-Pic.

Ontario: Government has announced VLTs will be approved for racetracks and charity casinos, and then for licensed premises. About 20,000 terminals are expected to scoop $460 million annually from gamblers, $260 million of that going to the province. There is no indication when the system will be up and running. Casino Windsor and the subsidiary Northern Belle riverboat - both of which have video slots - earned the government $419 million last year. The Rama First Nation casino is expected to open this summer near Orillia and a third casino will open at Niagara Falls in late autumn.

Manitoba: The 5,200 VLTs are restricted to bars, hotels and restaurants. They earned the government $120 million last year. There are also three casinos, all in Winnipeg.

Saskatchewan: The 3,600 video gambling terminals in licensed premises earned the government $101 million last year. A casino will open in Regina next January.

Alberta: Gamblers spent $1.5 billion on 5,709 video slot machines last year. The return to the government was $356 million.

Gambling is gambling -- regardless of whether patrons are feeding coins into the maw of a slot machine or that of a video lottery terminal in the bar.

Waxing rapturous about all the wonderful revenue slot machines will bring in for infrastructure, health care and the like doesn't change the fact that, if the one-armed bandits are permitted, Alberta is merely recycling the same old vice and feeding the same old addiction.

The Alberta Hotel Association is enthusiastically petitioning the province to allow for the installation of 2,000 slots, some of which would be installed in municipalities that expressly voted against having VLTs.

It's a sly way of staying in the gambling business without directly flouting the democratic decision-making process.

If the province colludes with industry to circumvent that democratic process, it will furnish further proof that the addictive power of gambling dollars stretches all the way from the ordinary citizen to upper reaches of the government.

This has always been the problem with any sort of official denunciation of the evils of gambling. Government is addicted to hearing those coins clinking into its coffers.

However, this particular rose by any other name still reeks and if the province approves the slot machines, it should be above- board in admitting that it is on no higher moral ground than it was with VLTs.

Most everyone on the wrong end of a high-stakes bet has probably wondered why casinos don't simply streamline their operations by shoving a vacuum-cleaner nozzle into our wallets and throwing the switch.

Turns out they're one terrifying step closer to doing just that. Coming soon to a gaming facility near you is a computerized video slot machine that runs on bank cards, not coins. Feed it your plastic and kiss your bank account goodbye.

That questionable bit of progress is just one of the many unsettling revelations in CBC's ``Risky Business,'' an hour-long grim portrait, tonight at 9 on Witness, of government's worsening and seemingly incurable addiction to legalized gambling in Canada.

As director Marrin Canell points out, this allows government to earn enormous sums that might otherwise have to come out of taxpayers' pockets. But ``Risky Business'' also notes that the abundance of ways to wager - everything from glitzy casinos to scratch'n'win Loto cards at the corner store - is creating legions of gambling addicts, many in their teens.

Canell and writer Ted Remerowski cover considerable ground, including the decline of horse-racing which is now viewed as a pasttime for old fuddy-duddies, and the success of a citizens' coalition in Vancouver in scuttling proposals for a monstrous, Vegas-style casino.

However, in its eagerness to touch on so many issues, ``Risky Business'' occasionally leaves key questions unanswered.

The most glaring is the unexplained case of Atlantic City, where the billions passing through the casino have had minimal effect on renewing the city itself.

We're left wondering whether Niagara Falls, whose casino opened barely three months ago, is similarly fated.

And shouldn't a few leading politicians, such as Ontario Premier Mike Harris, have been asked why hospitals are being closed and other services cut back when revenues from gaming have never been higher?

Still, the show's central argument remains sound: If government thinks the simple cure for addiction is to just say no, let it set an example by putting its money where its mouth is.

Remember the cartoon monsters you doodled when you were a kid? Nothing as genteel as Frankenstein or Dracula, these were true grotesques with multiple limbs, scrambled organs and garbage-pail etiquette.

That's why young viewers are bound to get a charge out YTV's new animated series, AAAHH!!! Real Monsters, Monday through Thursday at 4:30.

At last we've got a bunch of gross-out characters who live beneath the city dump and look as if they were designed by mischievous 8-year-olds.

Krumm, for instance, is a malodorous eating machine with a gigantic mouth where his stomach should be.

In his two upraised arms he carries his eyeballs which he blithely tosses around for fun.

Luckily, there's little in the whimsical adventures of Real Monsters that parents would find truly tasteless.

They're being groomed to terrify poor silly humans, but none come to harm.

As one ghoulie notes, ``Of course we don't eat humans.

``Who knows where they've been!''