Who helps the gamblers that casinos help create?


Al has a gentle face. He has a face of soft creases and pale-blue eyes. He looks older than his 52 years.

Al used to steal money from his daughter. He used to take money from his wife's purse. Once he stole $4,500 from a charity to which he belonged. He begged, borrowed and lifted every cent he could lay his hands on, and then bet it and lost it.

''I'd go through $90 a day, just on bingo,'' he recalls, in a sad, quiet voice. ''It was nothing to put down $75 on lottery tickets.''

Al is addicted to gambling. He's not gambling now -- he hasn't gambled in 19 months. But he knows, as painfully as anyone can know, what gambling does to some people.

The New Democratic Party has reversed its opposition to gambling. The party that once railed against lottery tickets now plans to legalize casinos.

There hasn't been much opposition to the idea -- quite the contrary. Every town in the province seems to have a clutch of Rotarians convinced that the old Whispering Pines Resort would be perfect for a (''strictly high-class'') gaming house.

In this region, the race is on to see whether Ottawa or the Outaouais will be the first to get a casino. (Quebec may also legalize casinos.)

Al couldn't care less. A casino would simply be another temptation in a world full of temptation. ''It's easier to gamble in Ontario than to drink.'' He smiles. Every corner store has its raft of tickets. ''The temptations are there. I just have to choose not to use them.''

There's virtually no data in Canada on the effects of legalizing gambling casinos. Manitoba has had a casino since 1989, but the government hasn't conducted any studies into how The Crystal Casino has affected the community. A spokesman for the Manitoba Lotteries Corp. said the province ''is monitoring the situation.''

However, the Maryland Department of Health took a look recently at the effect that legalizing gambling had on the state.

''Gambling addiction is on a disturbing rise in Maryland,'' it concluded. An estimated 1.5 per cent of the population was addicted to gambling -- double the number of fifteen years before -- when casinos weren't legal.

The 50,000 ''pathological'' gamblers in Maryland cost the taxpayers of the state $1.5 billion annually in lost productivity, health-care and social-assistance costs, and white-collar crime.

The task force discovered that, contrary to popular belief, gamblers do not generally have alcohol- or drug-abuse problems. Often gamblers give up other abuses to concentrate on gambling.

Al had been drinking since he was a child, and gambling since he was a teenager. He gave up the bottle 15 years ago, but that only increased his dependence on gambling.

''The big difference between alcohol and gambling is that gambling is lonelier. I used to walk into a bingo hall with 500 people in it and be the loneliest guy in the world.''

But although there are treatment centres in Ontario for alcohol and drug addicts, there are none for gamblers. Experts agree that drug- and alcohol-treatment centres are inappropriate for gambling addicts.

When the charity discovered Al had stolen the $4,500, Al's wife gave him an ultimatum -- get help or get out. He enrolled in Gambler's Anonymous. There's a chapter in Ottawa, and one in Hull. Group therapy and the fear of losing everything he holds most dear keep him straight.

But the danger is always there. He won't even toss a coin. ''It gets the juices going.''

Al wants the government to put aside a percentage of all revenues from casino operations to fund a gambling-addiction treatment centre.

''They're going to need it.''

The government hopes to announce its plan for legalizing casinos by the end of June.