VLTs should be restricted to casinos - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Video lottery terminals should not be allowed to exist outside of casinos and there should be restrictions on how much people can dump into individual machines, an extensive three-province gambling study has concluded.

John McMullan, a professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said Tuesday that unchecked VLT use is impoverishing a whole generation of elderly people and further adding to the misery of the poor.

"For the most part, gambling products saturate the landscape,'' he said in an interview.

"You can get them at bars, lounges, service clubs and the like. In other words, they're integrated into everyday life and everyday experiences.''

He said that gambling "as an experience should be segregated'' and that it "should occur in dedicated sites.''

McMullan's study has drawn from research papers and statistical reports on gambling prepared in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta over the last two years.

In each of the provinces, he found studies that buttressed the argument that those who can least afford to gamble are among the biggest losers.

"Gambling is a regressive tax,'' said McMullan. "It's a regressive tax on people who are less educated and increasingly it's transforming seniors into gamblers and starting to erode their financial security.''

His comments were echoed Tuesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which released an alternative budget.

The document also described gambling as a regressive tax and pointed out that provincial government "revenue from gambling had tripled'' since 1990.

Release of McMullan's study added fuel to the raging debate in the Nova Scotia legislature, where the Conservative minority government of Premier John Hamm is struggling to implement its new gaming strategy.

The province plans to remove 1,000, or about one-third of the machines under its control, from bars and restaurants and restrict play times.

The third-party Liberals are demanding an outright ban on VLTs, while the Opposition New Democrats prefer a plebiscite on making the machines illegal.

Even if the machines are to remain readily accessible, McMullan said the government's strategy does not go far enough, especially in the area of "making VLTs less seductive.''

The Conservatives' strategy proposes removing the ineffective stop button from the machines, which give players the illusion of control.

McMullan said they should be considering the use of so-called electronic smart cards, which give gamblers only a certain amount of money to spend.

In the legislature Tuesday, Liberal gaming critic Danny Graham pressed the government to remove bill accepters from VLTs, another feature that makes it easier to lose money.

He said the refusal to take action is a sign Hamm is not fully committed to ending the government's reliance on VLT revenues, a figure that was expected to top $130 million over the past year.

"It's clear they're still addicted to the (gambling) revenue,'' he said.

"Just as with addicts who have trouble admitting there's a problem, this government is in complete denial.

But Health Promotion Minister Rodney MacDonald said he believes the government has struck the right balance between limiting access to the machines and helping those who have become addicted.

Reducing access "is just one side of the equation,'' he said.

"Prevention and promotion is equally important, if not more important. We have a serious problem with addictions in our province and we need to address that.'' 

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