Problem gambling law called worthless - Friday 12th of August 2005

Nova Scotia is not doing enough to keep problem gamblers away from the provinces two casinos, critics said yesterday as they responded to the story of a former Cape Breton coal miner who lost $500,000 to slot machines over three years.

Although Nova Scotia legislation says casino operators must make attempts to identify gambling addicts and bar them from the premises, Paul Burrells case makes it clear the law is not working, said Dick Murtha, a lawyer leading a planned class-action lawsuit aimed at video lottery terminals.

"If there is a safety net, its meant to protect persons in government who put in place something that they ought to have known was dangerous," Mr. Murtha said.

Mr. Burrell said that between January of 2000 and February, 2003, he gambled his money away at the casino in Sydney, and said staff let him keep on playing and losing, even though it was clear he was addicted.

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Mr. Burrells banking records show he gambled away a $200,000 workers compensation settlement, family savings of $80,000 and roughly $200,000 from his re-mortgaged house and personal loans.

NDP justice critic Kevin Deveaux said the casinos and the government are ignoring their responsibility.

"The government has not been proactive in seeking out addicted gamblers," he said. "Without that and without penalties for casino operators who ignore it, the law isnt worth the paper its written on."

Provincial officials have confirmed there are few written guidelines in place to help casino staff enforce the law.

They say the main way casino staff identify addicts is by allowing them to identify themselves.

Mr. Murtha said that approach makes the law meaningless.

The provincial policy "doesnt even pass the laugh test," he said. "Why in Gods name did they write the legislation? To make themselves look good?"

Mr. Burrell has threatened to sue the provincial government in a bid to force it to do more for casino addicts.

Rodney MacDonald, the provinces Health Promotion Minister, would not comment on the Burrell case, but said the province is committed to fighting gambling dependency, both inside and outside casinos.

"We all have a responsibility when we see someone who is in need of our assistance and our help," Mr. MacDonald said recently. "The needs of all individuals who have an addiction, be it to VLTs or some other forms of addiction, are the needs we have to serve."

Last spring, the provinces minority Conservative government introduced a gaming policy that increased funding for treatment programs fourfold to a little more than $4-million annually. He believes these programs will address many concerns.

As part of that plan, the province began broadcasting radio ads in January, encouraging problem gamblers to seek treatment. But calls to the governments anti-gambling hotline increased 54 per cent between January and July of this year, when compared with 2004, according to figures provided by the Health Promotion Department.

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