Gambling inquiry overdue, study says - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Ottawa must launch a "long overdue" inquiry into Canadas rapidly expanded gambling industry, given this countrys "failure to consider the long-term impact on public welfare," a new study says.

The Legalization of Gambling in Canada, a report prepared for the Law Commission of Canada, takes aim at everything from the video lottery terminals that afflict Canadas most "severely disordered" gamblers to, more generally, "the unsound public policy" that has given rise to a multibillion-dollar cash cow.

"Wed like to get to the bottom of this $13-billion industry. Whats it doing to us?" co-author Garry Smith, a gambling-researcher at the University of Alberta, said in an interview.

Governments have no firm idea of the levels of crime, suicide and addiction that have followed from state-sanctioned gambling, particularly VLTs, his study suggests.

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The Australian, British, and American governments have all recently scrutinized their own gambling industries, but not Canada. The study says its high time for "an adequately funded independent federal public inquiry along the lines of a royal commission, with the power to subpoena testimony and a two-year time frame to complete the task."

The 100-page research paper was submitted this month to the Law Commission, an advisory body that will review the recommendations and possibly pass them along to the federal Justice Department.

Ottawa will review any recommendations when it receives them, a Justice Department spokesman said yesterday.

The researchers main argument is that, 20 years ago, the federal government decriminalized most forms of gambling after making a pact: If the provinces agreed to pay Ottawa $100-million, they would gain control of previously illicit games of chance.

Altering the Criminal Code to create provincial gambling monopolies amounts to a racket, the authors say. "There was little public involvement in or agitation for the legislative changes," they say, adding that today, "Canadians feel there should be more restrictions on gambling."

In fact, the report argues that since 1985, provinces have been running willy-nilly to build up their gambling industries, reaping huge profits even if they havent made good on their obligation to police themselves. A recent report by the Canada West Foundation pegged the total returns to the provincial governments in 2004 at $12.7-billion -- or nearly 4 per cent of overall provincial revenues.

"Provinces have a conflict of interest right now. You need a disinterested party above them," Mr. Smith said. He added that this is why the federal government has to get back into regulating gambling.

A group of Canadian senators is pushing Ottawa to flex what regulatory muscles it has left, pushing for laws that would remove highly addictive VLTs from bars.

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