Opinion Editorial -- Response to Globe & Mail series Bad Bets

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The facts are always a good bet

By Paul Burns, Vice President, Canadian Gaming Association

Canadians agree that people with severe gambling problems deserve help and support in dealing with their problems. There is no disputing that the stories profiled the recent Globe and Mail series Bad Bets are real and tragic, but there is a need for a paper like the Globe and Mail to also present more than just stories and opinion. It needs to offer some additional points of view, and ask some hard questions about the cited research and studies rather than artlessly succumbing to the platitudes and clichés of those generally opposed to gambling.

The facts are that the vast majority (over 98 per cent) of people pursue this form of entertainment without the problems highlighted in this series, and that it’s not “comps,” gaming devices or casino environments that are responsible for creating problem gambling.

First, the overall goals of our industry’s marketing programs are identical to those of our responsible gaming initiatives: Both aim to encourage healthy gaming as a fun entertainment, which is exactly what it is for the overwhelming majority of Canadians.

To this end, the Canadian industry spends more than any other nation in the world on responsible gambling programs. At more than $100-million per year, initiatives include mandatory training for employees, information centres at casinos, public awareness campaigns, and treatment and counseling programs to name just a few examples.

With respect to gaming environments and devices, research conducted by Harvard Medical School is direct. Howard Schaffer, the Director of the Division of Addictions states, “that there is a myth regarding addictive behaviours around gambling, that the game causes the disorder. In fact, the game doesn’t cause the disorder, because if it did, everyone who played the game would end up with the problem. Gambling problems derive from every form of gaming. It’s the relationship of a person with vulnerabilities to the games that they play, what this means to them and how it fits in their life, that essentially determines whether or not they will have a problem.”

Addiction treatment experts tell us that in order to be helped a person must first take responsibility for his or her problem. They also tell us that when a person, rather than taking personal responsibility, attempts to shift the responsibility for his or her problems onto another party, it is a form of denial - which brings us to the criticisms leveled at self-exclusion programs.

Self-exclusion was never intended to be a form of policing. Most treatment experts would agree that it is not “catch me if you can” or “it’s your problem now, not mine”. The purpose and intent of self-exclusion is to help people face up to the fact that they have a problem with gambling and to encourage them to make a formal decision to stop gambling and to seek treatment. Researchers also tell us that self-exclusion is most effective when combined with treatment programs.

It is also important that the issue of problem gambling be placed in a proper context. Research conducted by the Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling shows, for instance, that only one per cent of Canadians can be classified as problem gamblers. This number is consistent with research literature internationally, according to a comprehensive study completed by Drs. Jamie Wiebe and Rachel Volberg, which reviewed more than 100 studies of problem gambling prevalence conducted across Canada and around the world over the past 20 years. In simple English, what they found was where ever and whenever problem gambling rates were assessed, whether before or after the introduction, increase or decrease of legal gambling alternatives, the rate of problem gambling stabilizes to be approximately one per cent of the general population – period.

Even the rates of problem gambling in the Netherlands are not significantly different from Canada, which seems to indicate that their programs, which seem extremely intrusive by Canadian standards of privacy, are not the silver bullet solution suggested.

There is no question that selective numbers always generate debate. Research from Drs. Williams & Wood, cited in the Globe editorial, indicated that 36 per cent of Ontario’s gaming revenue is derived from problem gamblers. However, what’s not mentioned is that the authors of this report note that its findings are “very tentative because of the small sample size of severe problem gamblers.” In fact, they collected data from just 32 people with severe gambling problems and only 92 problem gamblers in total.

For this and other reasons, the study has been found wanting by peer review. Further, these findings are at total odds with the only other study on the subject, the Gambling Impact and Behavior Study prepared in 1999 by the University of Chicago, which was based upon interviews and surveys of 2,417 adults. The conclusion of this study was that pathological and problem gamblers accounted for 5.3 per cent of casino revenues.

None of this is to minimize the importance of issues surrounding problem gaming. We too want to see the issues addressed, and are working with operators, manufacturers, lotteries, researchers, and governments to deal with (for instance) issues like youth gambling and the proliferation of online gaming sites that that are not subject to Canadian regulatory oversight, have no limits, and offer little to no help to problem gamblers.

When it comes to government’s role “addiction” and “hypocrisy” are not the right words to describe government’s involvement. “Responsible” and “transparent” would be better descriptors. Provincial governments and their agencies routinely provide updates and accountability reports, proactively come up with new Responsible Gaming programs, discuss issues with problem gamblers and researchers, and the list goes on. When you ask Canadians, most agree that gaming should be controlled by government and that the majority of the proceeds should be directed to public revenues, similar to their attitudes regarding the control, distribution and sale of alcohol. Governments rely on income from many sources. So, I have to ask — why the double standard when it comes to gaming?

In the end, we know that the ongoing health of our industry is tied to responsible gaming. Today, a majority Canadians (more than 85 per cent of adults) take part in some form of gaming each year. For most people, it is risk-free and fun. It is also an industry that employs 135,000 people; contributes $8.7 billion annually to governments; and is a preferred entertainment choice across Canada.

Responsible gaming is the maxim of the industry. We know that no one benefits when enjoyment stops and turns into a problem or addiction, even if it is often difficult to recognize when a person has crossed the line that separates the two. Canada’s gaming industry will continue to support and promote programs for problem gamblers. We will also sustain our efforts to market the industry responsibly to Canadians who have fun gambling and who see and treat it as a great form of entertainment they can safely enjoy.

Paul Burns is Vice President with the Canadian Gaming Association, which represents casino operators, equipment suppliers and other elements of Canada's gaming industry.

Canadian Gaming Association 
44 Victoria St., Suite 300 
Toronto, ON M5C 1Y2 
phone: 416.304.6870 
mobile: 416.579.392

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