‘The devil’s television’

JOHN NICOL May 11 1998

‘The devil’s television’

JOHN NICOL May 11 1998

‘The devil’s television’

Yair Reznik doesn’t get it. “They call it gaming, and games are supposed to be fun,” muses the Halifax psychologist. “But if you walk into where someone is playing a video gambling machine, there are no smiles, there is no eye contact. It’s mindless activity. Insert coin, push start. Given a choice between sex and video gambling, they choose video gambling.” Now retired from practice, Reznik is at the forefront of a fight in Nova Scotia to outlaw video lottery terminals. But the battle against the ma-

chines is being waged across Canada, in the eight provinces where they are legal. And as tales of woe emerge from the Prairies and the Maritimes, Ontario has been forced to rethink plans to scatter 20,000 VLTs across the province.

Among their opponents, VLTs are known as the “devil’s television.” They have a particularly quick and nasty effect on the five per cent of the population estimated by Ontario’s Addiction Research Foundation to be potential problem gamblers. Some VLT addicts wear adult diapers to avoid trips to the washroom, and stay in their chairs for up to 10 hours at a time. A suicide crisis line in Alberta is getting up to seven calls a day from people who say they are addicted to VLTs. After a VLT addict killed himself in Rocky Mountain House, a town of 5,800 people about 90 km west of Red Deer, Alta., the town voted in a plebiscite in February, 1997, to ban the machines within the town limits. And in Manitoba there have been six suicides linked to VLT addiction in the past two years, putting pressure on the province’s chief medical examiner to call an inquest. Before VLTs were legalized in Nova Scotia in 1991, Reznik was treating only one problem gambler—a bingo addict. Soon, his patients included more than 40 VLT addicts. “It could be anyone who has access to the machines,” he says. “It’s an addiction of opportunity—nice, honest, hardworking people are being turned into dysfunctional people.” It is clear to Reznik, author of a self-help guide for addicts called Video Gambling Addiction, why people play the

machines: not only do VLTs offer the thrill of gambling, they also exert a calming effect on anxious or depressed people and are popular

with unhappy adolescents who lose themselves in the blinking lights. “VLTs have a very fast cycle of win and lose, the feedback is immediate and relatively small funds are being lost,” Reznik notes. “It isn’t long before the gambler is saying, This is my lucky day— the next one is definitely the winner.’ ”

In Ontario, Conservative Premier Mike Harris’s government had decided in 1996 to allow VLTs in the province. But in a confidential document circulated in early April and obtained by Maclean’s, the ministry of consumer and commercial relations noted high rates of VLT addiction in Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. On the other hand, the document noted that slot machines appear to have a less-powerful effect on gamblers: while VLTs have a hypnotic video display screen, a greater choice of games and can be played at least 20 times a minute, slots offer only single games that can be played just eight to 16 times a minute. The Harris government decided that, with a nod to the anti-gambling lobby, it would not put VLTs in bars, restaurants and hotels, but would instead opt for slot machines and restrict them to racetracks and charity casinos. Reznik scoffs at that decision: slots are slower and slightly less addictive, he says, but in the end they are “the same lady with a different disguise.” In some cases, the lady is deadly. Dennis Wynant, a self-confessed VLT addict from Winnipeg Beach, Man., killed himself last

November after losing more than $125,000 on VLTs over three years. Recently retired after almost 25 years at Eaton’s, where he was general manager for Western Canada, Wynant died in his car of carbon monoxide poisoning, leaving notes for his family and the media—and his wife $40,000 in debt. His son Glen, who says he has recovered from his own VLT addiction, said his father’s note “told me to treat my wife with respect—quit gambling before it destroys me and my family.” After his father’s death and subsequent media coverage, Glen Wynant was

flooded with calls from people who wanted to talk about their own gambling problems. Having learned of other deaths and suicide attempts, he has started a petition to put the question of a provincial ban on VLTs on the ballot for the next Manitoba election, expected this fall.

According to Sgt. Bob McDonald, head of the RCMP criminal intelligence service in Alberta, there are a lot of questions to be asked about VLTs. A survey of RCMP officers in the province

found that the force has been called in to investigate a multitude of VLT-related crimes— robberies, thefts, assaults, mischief, fraud, bankruptcies, suspected arson, neglected children, missing persons and suicides. “A disturbing feature of many of our investigations,” McDonald told a February conference on VLT and electronic gambling at the University of Alberta, is that many of those “implicated in VLT-related occurrences or charged with criminal offenses related to VLT gambling had no previous involvement with the law.” At the same time, he said, known criminals have been betting large amounts of money on VLTs, which makes RCMP investigators “wonder if

criminals are committing more crimes to finance their participation in legal gambling.” The Alberta government anticipates that it will take in $660 million from all forms of gaming in the current fiscal year—$16 million more than it expects in revenue from crude oil. Marcy Dibbs, a supervisor of problem gambling for the province’s Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, which treats problem gamblers, is quick to point out that “95 per cent of the adult population does not have a problem. Gambling is a legitimate form of entertainment”

But McDonald disputes that, speculating that the problems are in fact more widespread. He wonders “how many gambling-related incidents go unreported to police.”

The Roman Catholic bishops of Alberta have asked their congregations to think about whether gamblers are using food and rent money to feed VLTs. And Calgary oil man Jim Gray, one of the leaders of the anti-VLT movement in Canada, wants, among other things, an investigation into the connection “between surging VLT profits and the dwindling interest in sports franchises and cultural

Gambling opponents nationwide target VLTs

groups.” Gray, chairman of a campaign to put a VLT ban in Calgary to a plebiscite this fall, argues that for each problem gambler, it may cost society up to $20,000 in police and court costs, workplace embezzlement, unpaid loans, welfare, bankruptcies, increased insurance fees, treatment and family breakups. Phyllis Vineberg’s story is a good example. Her son Trevor became addicted to VLTs in a Montreal arcade. In four years, he lost $100,000. Unable to overcome his addiction, he killed himself in July, 1995, at the age of 25. Vineberg says her son had plans to

open a country inn, which could have created tax revenue and employment. Instead, for a year after his death Vineberg and her eight-year-old daughter visited the school social worker together, Vineberg consulted a psychiatrist, and regularly saw her family doctor to get medication for depression and sleeplessness. These sorts of costs far outweigh the $1.3 billion the Quebec government takes in gambling revenue every year, she says. “It was the loss of 40 years of productive life. And it’s just one story.”

But Jim Gray suggests that governments have lost the ability to assess any sort of rational argument. “Citizens have to make informed choices, and then force those choices upon our governments—because governments can’t make them,” Gray says. When it comes to gambling, he argues, the provinces are incapable of guarding “the essence of Canada”—striking a balance between a competitive economy and a caring society.

In Alberta, the citizens’ movement has spread from Rocky Mountain House in early 1997 to chalk up similar victories in Sylvan

Lake and Wood Buffalo. AntiVLT activists in Edmonton and Medicine Hat, as well as Calgary, are circulating petitions to put the issue to plebiscites, while municipal councils in Lethbridge and Red Deer have already agreed to let the voters decide this fall. Gray feels 1998 is the year “the stars are lined up across the Canadian sky” for citizens to determine the future of VLTs.

In the Maritimes, people have been fighting VLTs since they day they were legalized. On April 1, the government of Prince Edward Island removed VLTs from corner stores after a doctor-led coalition determined that many Island families had been devastated by the machines. In New Brunswick, after

much hand-wringing and pressure from an association represent ing corner store owners, the government announced in April it will remove YLTs gradually: only one will be allowed in any nonlicensed establishment by the end of this year, and they will be re moved totally from stores by October, 1999.

In Nova Scotia, where a 1996 study showed that 74 per cent of the $78 million annual VLT revenue came from problem gamblers, the government has taken the machines out of corner stores, although they remain in the province’s two casinos and in bars and restaurants. In 1994, when Nova Scotians were debating whether the province should allow casinos, then-Finance Minister Bernie Boudreau raised eyebrows by arguing that casinos were necessary to generate revenue—in order to “pay for the addicts created by VLTs.” In other words, more gambling to pay for the damage caused by gambling. For people like Jim Gray and his citizens’ army, Canada has paid too much already.