Lucky country?: Gambling in Canada is a $13-billion industry with profits similar to fuel, liquor taxes - Friday 12th of August 2005

Government-run gambling has become an almost $13-billion industry in Canada, with about 87,000 gambling machines, 60 permanent casinos and 33,000 lottery ticket centres pumping money into provincial coffers, according to a new study.

While the report from the Canada West Foundation shows that growth in the gaming industry has levelled off this decade after a dramatic rise in the 1990s, it notes provincial governments are still heavily reliant on revenues generated from things such as card tables, lottery tickets and slot machines. Gambling-related profits of $6.3 billion now approach what comes in from taxes on fuel and liquor.

Gambling in B.C. has experienced significant growth in the past four years, despite a levelling off and even a decline in some areas of the country. The expansion is due to more slot machines and new, bigger casinos in the province.

B.C. has 19 casinos, the most of any province.

And there are 161 per cent more slot machines in the province than there were in 2000 -- a total of 5,673 in 2004 -- according to the report.

Howard Blank, vice-president of Great Canadian Casinos, said the increase in the number of slot machines in the country can be attributed to the overall expansion of the casino industry from a games-based experience to something more focused on entertainment.

People arent just coming to gamble at B.C. casinos, he said. They are coming for the concerts and other live entertainment, the restaurants, and the hotels. For example, the Coquitlam casino is currently expanding and adding a theatre.

"Its not just slots," Blank said. "The majority of people are coming for the whole experience."

This trend toward overall adult entertainment in B.C. casinos also means increased traffic from both tourists and locals -- which translates into more demand for slot machines, he said.

Before the Liberal government took power in B.C. in 2001, there was a cap of 300 slot machines per casino. Since then, the Liberals increased the provincial cap, then removed it entirely.

The River Rock casino in Richmond has 1,000 slot machines.

Isabel Minty, a spokeswoman with Citizens Against Gambling Expansion, said more slot machines in B.C. mean more vulnerable gamblers are being targeted.

"It is the most addictive form of gambling," she said. "It is also where the most vulnerable people gamble."

Slots appeal to the "unsophisticated" gamblers -- those with the least education and the least disposable income, Minty said. "Theyre targeting the ones they can clean their pockets."

B.C. and Ontario are the only two provinces that do not allow video lottery terminals (VLTs).

Critics are calling on governments to cap the expansion of gambling services until the social impact of the programs can be better assessed.

Jason Azmier, senior policy analyst with the Canada West Foundation and author of the report, said the rapid growth in government gambling profits -- which rose 275 per cent between 1992 and 2004 -- is cause for concern considering that new frontiers in gaming such as the Internet, cellphones and interactive television have yet to be tapped by the provinces.

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