B.C. does too little to fight problem gambling and should consider new steps, from making it harder to get alcohol and cash in casinos to removing the most addictive high-risk slot machines.
Those recommendations come from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall, who tackled the health impacts of gambling Wednesday with the release of his annual report titled “Lower the Stakes.”
Chief among the findings is that B.C. underspends other provinces in prevention and treatment for problem gambling – it invests about half the national average on a per capita basis.
Liquor access is one area of risk the province could tighten, Kendall said, perhaps through reduced hours of alcohol service at casinos or by raising drink prices.
He said gambling delivers endorphins that stimulate pleasure centres of the brain.
“If you also have alcohol and add that to the mix and you’ve got an ATM there with an unlimited cash amount, you’ve definitely got a scenario where people are going to behave less and less responsibly.”
Banning ATMs or requiring players to set an advance limit on what they might spend is another idea advanced in the report.
It also zeroes in on high-risk electronic gaming machines – the slots designed by manufacturers to generate the most compulsive behaviour.
Kendall suggested they be replaced with lower risk models and urged the province to post the risk rating on each machine so gamblers could choose a lower risk option.
Gerald Thomas of the Centre for Addictions Research, a co-author of the report, said the province has high, medium and low risk ratings for all of the slot machines in B.C. casinos and should disclose how many it has of each.
Kendall noted government is in a conflict of interest because it relies heavily on gambling profits but is also responsible for protecting vulnerable citizens.
“This is a public health issue,” he said, adding the time may be right for a “fulsome discussion on the benefits and the risks” of gambling in light of rejections of new casinos over the past two years by Surrey and Vancouver.
Any new decisions to expand gambling should come with an assessment of the risk to problem gamblers and be contingent on reducing the overall share of revenue extracted from them, the report recommends.
There’s been no detailed study of problem gambling in B.C. in several years but new research is slated for next year.
According to 2007 statistics, 3.7 per cent of B.C. residents are at “moderate risk” and 0.9 per cent are classified as problem gamblers.
Kendall noted the two groups account for 26 per cent of total gambling revenue despite making up less than five per cent of the population.
There are 160,000 gamblers in the two risky groups but only 4,000 calls per year to a problem gambling helpline, suggesting the number of people who could be helped is “much higher.”
Kendall argues the B.C. Lottery Corp. could do more to identify problem gamblers – possibly using data on their gambling gathered through a loyalty card program – and then dispatching staff to attempt treatment interventions.
The report calls on the province to devote at least 1.5 per cent of gambling revenue to problem gambling initiatives, tripling the current outlay.
It also urges school classes to warn children of the dangers of gambling, focusing on students in grades 10 to 12.
Provincial gambling revenue per capita climbed 56 per cent over the last decade from $353 per person in 2002 to $552 by 2011.
The $2.1-billion a year industry delivers nearly $900 million in net profits to government.
B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong said in a statement the province this year increased its Responsible Gambling program budget by 30 per cent.
“We take the social costs of gambling seriously,” he said, adding the province and BCLC will provide $11 million for responsible gambling this year.
De Jong said the province is committed to continually improving but will review the performance of its current programs before considering any increase in spending.