As gambling grows, Alberta is not doing enough for addicts
I loved the sound that coins made as I slid them into the slot of that magic machine. It was so satisfying to hear the credits being counted, whether they were from a win or from my own pocket. Video poker was my game and I was good at it. Anything from a pair of jacks up meant I could double up on my win. Sometimes doubling up could win me 100 credits or more. But it took me so long to understand I never truly went there to win, and that even if I won the money would just go back into a different machine the next day.
With the current crisis in Ukraine, and an uncertain future all over the world caused by the global pandemic, we are forgetting to deal with serious problems here in Alberta. According to the Canadian Community Health Study, two per cent of Canadians 15 and over have gambling problems. That’s over 80,000 Albertans. Youth aged 12-24 are at higher risk of having gambling problems, due to the unique developmental aspects of adolescence. Alberta Health Services warns these same youth are also at risk of alcohol use, antisocial behaviours, depression, tobacco use, cannabis and illicit drug use, not to mention violence and under-controlled temperament.
There is no way to describe the amount of humiliation and pain someone goes through when they are addicted to gambling. Since before the first VLT machines came out, I have been a compulsive gambler. Losing all your money is one thing. Losing the trust and respect of family and friends is horrible. All you can think about is your next bet, the big win. But no win is ever enough to stop, which means all the money eventually goes back in. I suffered from a gambling addiction for years.
The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Addiction Commission helped. I saw a counsellor and went to group therapy. Gambler’s Anonymous helped too. When I went to get treatment, I felt humiliated and defeated. I hoped it would punish me enough to want to stop. No lasting change happened until I went through a long period of withdrawal and forced myself to not even think about gambling, or go near any casinos or VLT bars.
Recently, Canada opened the doors for dozens of new sports betting websites to enter the market. Some feel this means there will be a safe, regulated option for gamblers. Even with legal gambling, problem behaviours exist. The signs of problem gambling include spending more time gambling, placing larger and larger bets, boasting about wins and preferring gambling to family events. It is horrifying that people in Alberta spend billions on gambling, with problem gamblers believed to contribute as much as half of that. Of the profits the province makes on gambling and liquor sales, only a fraction is put into the addiction and mental health-care system.
Even with a pandemic decline in gaming revenue, the Alberta government pulled in net sales of nearly $800 million per year from gambling in 2021. Many charities benefit from gambling as well, but at what cost? Our government is as addicted to gambling as the people who gamble away their life savings and inheritances. Four per cent of the Alberta operating budget comes from gambling, more than any other province.
While getting treatment for my addiction, I met many people whose lives were wrecked because they were compulsive gamblers. Broken families, legal problems, impending jail terms. Yet since I quit gambling, more slot machines, more modern VLT machines were rolled out, and sports betting and a government-owned online casino have opened. Many people who benefited from the “Alberta advantage” lost everything gambling and are still unable to quit. We don’t just need more warning signs or posters telling people to “set a limit and stay within it.” We need better laws to prevent youth from gambling. We need to find ways to control online gambling and we need to get VLT machines out of our neighbourhoods. Only then can we truly say we take care of our most vulnerable.
Leif Gregersen is an Alberta writer. For help with a gambling problem, visit the Find Help page of the AGLC’s GameSense website.