With legal gambling by Albertans surging nearly 5 per cent in the last year, an expert says the new government needs to reconsider the former Tory regime’s plan to add an online casino to the province’s betting mix.
New numbers from the province’s gaming and liquor commission show bettors stuffed nearly $25 billion into video slot and lottery machines during the last 12 months and contributed over $1.2 billion after expenses to government coffers after expenses.
While the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission is now looking at proposals to create an Internet betting site that could add an estimated $150 million more in revenues each year, Garry Smith said the NDP government should be looking instead at limiting the availability of gambling in the province.
“The data shows that 3 or 4 per cent of the people who play these machines are problem gamblers and they generate upwards of 40 per cent of the revenues,” said Smith, a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta who researches the social and economic aspects of gambling.
“The money from video slots is addictive for governments, but they should also remember the large social cost that often manifests itself in financial ruin and suicides.”
Bill Robinson, president and chief executive of the AGLC, said changes in Albertan’s disposable income can create fluctuations in revenues, but he also noted they can rise or fall based on the appeal of the gambling options offered to bettors.
The commission’s 2013-14 annual report notes that an upgrade of all 6,000 video lottery terminals — introduced to Alberta two decades ago — had just been completed to ensure gamblers had access to the “best content and hardware.”
Robinson also noted that an Indian resort and casino near Edmonton was recently the first in Canada to introduce the popular Konami Titan 360 that the annual report said boasts a “12-foot tall bonus wheel and large metallic rolling balls used to determine bonus prize amount” that “entertains onlookers and engages players.”
Smith said the gaming industry is constantly coming up with products that will induce people to play longer and bet more.
“There is a science to getting people to keep on going even though they are losing,” he said.
“Until now, we’ve restricted these video slots to casinos and bars, but now the AGLC seems to want to introduce a product that will let people sit at home in the pyjamas all day and gamble.”
Joe Ceci, the New Democrat’s freshly-minted finance minister, was noncommittal about the commission’s plan to improve and increase its gambling offerings by creating an online casino like those run by eight of 10 other provinces.
“AGLC is a significant revenue line for the province (contributing about 5 per cent of all government revenues) … and they have come and told me about their hopes and dreams for the future,” Ceci said in an interview.
“I don’t stand anywhere yet because I haven’t seen the results (of the commission’s consultations with industry providers of online gaming systems).”
But some gamblers are a little wary of the prospects of an online casino.
“If you’re a government, that’s an extra source of income. That’s revenue,” said Kevin Cook, who on Saturday took a seat at the Stampede midway for a game of Crown and Anchor. “But there are social issues involved,” he cautioned. “There’s lives damaged by gambling, that’s not really debatable.”
Playing the same game on Saturday, Greg (who declined to give his last name) said an online casino is a “terrible idea” that would only exasperate gambling addictions, like the one he says he overcame.
“It would make it so easy for people to do it. Kids could do it. Steal their parents credit card, whatever. It doesn’t take anything to go online and gamble,” he said.
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman was not available to be interviewed, but in a written statement she noted that online gaming is currently happening illegally and without oversight, “making it difficult to assess the hardships it causes some users.”
The AGLC numbers also show that government revenues from liquor sales increased 5.7 per cent last year while the province’s population only grew by a little more than two per cent.
While the government netted about $2.3 billion from liquor and gambling last year, the province’s total spending on addictions and mental health-care system were about a third of that amount at $750 million.
But while revenues are up, many say the government isn’t doing enough to curb alcohol and gambling issues that result.
“No one really cares. The government doesn’t care. All they want is more money,” said Dallas Murray, who turned $2 into $20 with the roll of a dice on Saturday at the Stampede. Greg said the government hasn’t done enough to raise awareness about the issues involved in gambling and addiction.
“People aren’t aware that it actually is a problem for them. It’s like any drug addiction, except drug addiction is more talked about,” he said.
Liberal leader David Swann, who the New Democrat government has asked to review the system, said the province needs to spend more on both prevention and treatment of addictions.
“I find it very disturbing to see people in our province drinking and betting more,” Swann said. “I fear we are falling farther and farther behind in addressing mental health and addiction issues that cause a great deal of pain for families, lost productivity on the job and additional costs when these ill people are admitted to our acute care health system.”