Opinion: “Fuelling an addiction” (The Province, Aug. 21, 2009)

Op-ed: “Fuelling an addiction; government’s gambling with other people’s money”

by Gillian Burnett

The B.C. Lottery Corporation’s official motto is: “Know your limit, play within it,” and they insist they mean it.

Why, then, has the Lottery Corp. just announced it’s raising the weekly spending limit on its PlayNow.com website to $10,000?

You read that correctly: $10k. (Well, $9,999, if we’re splitting hairs.) Seems like a lot of money? Clearly BCLC agrees, as the weekly limit being replaced is a mere $120 — yup, you read that correctly, too — making for an increase of 8,333 per cent.

As Michael Smyth pointed out in these pages yesterday, you only need scratch the surface of this government-issued lottery ticket to see their coming payday.

Consider the following.

According to a Statistics Canada report released in late July and reported on by The Province, revenue from government-run gambling in all of Canada fell in 2008 for the first time in 16 years.

B.C., however, proved the exception to the rule: our net gambling income was up — to $1.09 billion for the year ending March 31. But that was still $19.3 million below the target, set before the recession took hold.

Indeed, just Monday it was reported that thousands of community groups across the province are in financial limbo as tens of millions in lottery funds have been frozen, subject to “comprehensive review.”

Meanwhile, casino operators, BCLC’s co-dependents for many years, have been issuing dire warnings about falling revenues since the recession was a gleam in the economy’s eye.

How can BCLC increase revenues at light speed and cut those pesky casinos out of its profits in one fell swoop? Online gambling.

How can they cash in on the exploding popularity of unregulated offshore gambling websites? Online gambling with fewer regulations.

Studies, though, point to two sobering facts: in a poor economy, people in desperate straits are more likely to take financial risks; and, online gamblers are statistically far more likely than other gamblers to develop an addiction.

The government’s own report, commissioned in 2003, supports these theories. Where the province estimates that 4.6 per cent of British Columbian gamblers are addicts, the “Problem Gambling Prevalence Study” estimated that 9.9 per cent of Internet gamblers have a moderate or severe problem. That one-in-10 figure was suggested long before Internet gambling became a mainstream phenomenon.

This from a Liberal government elected, in 2001, on a platform that included a straightforward objective: “Stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families.”

Fast-forward eight years, and those same families are straining just to get by.

There is some assistance on the way, though. In an interesting coincidence, less than two months ago BCLC announced the introduction of GameSense, a program designed to reach out to hard-core gamblers who might be put off by the tough, “Big-Brother-y” approach of existing programs, to use Lottery Corp. president Michael Greydon’s term.

An apt choice of words. What’s more Orwellian than a government that seeks to ban your choice of leisure activity? A government that regulates that activity to the clear and self-acknowledged detriment of its own citizens.

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