Canadian Roulette

This archived article is from January 2005. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

No one knows exactly how many compulsive gamblers end up taking their own lives in Canada. For every suicide, five gamblers with self-inflicted injuries could end up in hospital. Gambling addiction is also linked to a range of other serious personal and social harms such as bankruptcy, family breakup, domestic abuse, assault, fraud, theft and even homelessness.

The profits from government gaming operations are almost $13 billion nationally, but the costs of gambling addiction are not known. Some of these could be quantified, including medical care, policing, courts, prisons, social assistance and business losses. However, no simple dollar figure can measure the devastation to the lives of those affected by pathological gambling.

The Odds of Suicide

A Nova Scotia study released in October 2004 names problem gambling as a factor in 6.3 percent of suicides. In that province, officials investigating a suicide must ask specifically about gambling.

Statistics from other provinces are lower because investigators do not ask about gambling if no one mentions it. However, in November, the Ontario chief coroner said suicides related to casino gambling will reach a record high in 2004 in that province.

There are no national statistics on suicides and attempted suicides related to gambling addiction. In part, this is because they are very hard to collect. Those investigating or treating an incident may not always pursue gambling as a possible factor. Even if such reporting becomes mandatory, compulsive gamblers and those close to them may hide the problem due to feelings of shame and guilt. In some cases, suicides are disguised as “accidents.”

According to a 1996 report by National Council of Welfare to Canada’s federal government:

  • Suicide attempts among pathological gamblers are much more frequent than among the general population.
  • Suicide attempts are more common with pathological gambling than with any other addiction.
  • Problem gamblers often have other dependencies such as alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Problem and pathological gamblers tend to be young (under 30).
  • In a Quebec study of college students, 26.8 percent of pathological gamblers had attempted suicide, compared to 7.2 percent of college students who had no gambling problem.
  • A survey of Gamblers Anonymous members in the United States found that 48 percent had considered suicide and 13 percent had attempted it.

A 2001 Ontario study found that 3.8 percent of those who had gambled in the past year, or about 340,000 people, had moderate or severe gambling problems. Seven per cent of young Ontario adults (18 to 24 years old) in the 2001 study reported gambling problems – almost twice the rate found in the general population. Of severe problem gamblers, 6.1 percent had considered suicide.

The Most Dangerous Game

Video lottery terminals (VLTs) have been called the crack-cocaine of gambling. Indeed, electronic gaming machines (EGMs) may be the most addictive form of gambling ever invented. Their colours, lights and sounds can drive normal gamblers to bet faster and faster until they become obsessed. It takes only a year to get hooked on VLTs, while it takes almost four years to become addicted to other forms of gambling such as horses, sports betting and blackjack.

VLTs and video slots have become the single largest source of government gambling revenues — and 60 percent of all VLT revenues are known to come from problem gamblers. The slots are a popular attraction in casinos and race tracks, as well as bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, billiard halls and other youth-oriented venues.

A few bar owners have dropped their highly profitable electronic gaming machines after customers who had become compulsive players committed suicide. Such incidents have led to calls for VLTs to be banned in some communities.

Safety Measures

Provincial and territorial governments have become more and more reliant on revenues from their gambling operations. They advertise their casinos, lotteries and instant wins as a way to have fun and get rich quick. Ironically, they are also the regulators.

These jurisdictions must do an honest and thorough analysis. Systems may need to be put into place to collect the necessary information. How much revenue comes from problem gamblers? (In 2003, 35 percent of Ontario gaming revenues came from only 4.8 percent of gamblers.) What issues and harms have accompanied the expansion of gaming? What are their direct and indirect costs?

A number of preventive strategies have been suggested. Some could be implemented in the short term. Others must be addressed in the longer term. All challenge gaming operators to risk some of their profits on the public good. The following are presented as a starting point:

Advertising: Government-sponsored commercials should not glamorize gambling, and should be aired only during adult programming. Counter-balance them with widespread publicity on help lines and the dangers of compulsive gambling. Some think advertising that promotes gambling should be banned altogether.

Electronic Gaming Machines: Slow down the speed of operation. Show players how long they have been betting and how much money they have lost. Set limits at which the machine will terminate play. Post a helpline number and warnings about the dangers of compulsive gambling; show these messages on screens not in use. Reduce access to VLTs and video slots, and keep them out of youth-oriented locations.

Smart Cards: In many casinos, players receive a card that records all plays and triggers rewards. Program a dollar limit for allowable losses into the card; this could be set by the player, the establishment and/or the government. When the limit is reached, cut off gambling privileges until pre-determined criteria are met.

Hours of Operation: Casinos are open 24 hours a day, every day. All-night access creates an irresistible temptation for a pathological gambler. In addition, drivers fatigued from gambling into the wee hours of the morning (often while drinking) pose a risk on the road. Simply closing down overnight would protect those most at risk from themselves.

Ownership: The same governments that rely on gambling revenues also regulate gambling. The biggest challenge will be to eliminate this obvious conflict of interest.

In 1969, some forms of gambling were legalized in Canada. In 1985, the federal government gave the power over gambling to the provinces and territories. Over the past 20 years, gambling has become a huge source of income for cash-strapped governments.

The Canada Safety Council believes strategies are urgently needed to reduce deaths, injuries and other harms resulting from the expansion of gambling. As with other safety issues, there will be no magic bullet. Solutions will involve a combination of measures, including public education, preventive use of technology, counseling and treatment programs, well-enforced regulations — and above all, a strong social commitment to prevent gambling addiction.