Dec. 21, 2004. 06:54 AM

A mixed message to gamblers
Ontario recommends that gamblers stick to pre-set limits and avoid borrowing to satisfy the urge Yet the province's casinos do everything to make breaking those rules easy, writes Andrew Chung


Ontario is the only Canadian province that allows customers to borrow money from casinos to gamble, the Star has found.

Like many casinos in the United States, Ontario's four giant, Las Vegas-style commercial casinos offer gamblers the opportunity to take out a line of credit.

That's offered as a matter of convenience, says the province's gambling arm, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

But credit lines and other "conveniences" offered at casinos appear to contradict the corporation's own recommendations to prevent problem gambling.

While the Liberal government ponders expanding gambling in Ontario, it appears other provinces are focusing on innovative measures to deal with problem gambling.

In Ontario, gambling brings in $5.7 billion in annual revenue, more than $2 billion of which is profit. And a larger proportion of gambling revenue comes from problem gamblers than in any other province and possibly anywhere else in the world, the newest study for the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre suggests.

In Ontario, 450,000 people are classed as moderate to severe problem gamblers. Yet that 4.8 per cent of the adult population contributes 60 per cent of slots revenue and 35 per cent of gambling revenue over all, compared with a national average of 23 per cent.

The gaming corporation, which manages the casinos, says it's making great efforts to deal with problem gambling. But visits to Ontario's megaplex casinos reveal that the agency's own tips to avoid problem gambling are at odds with services offered for the sake of "convenience."

 The gaming corporation advises people to set affordable spending limits and stick to them.

"Do not withdraw more than your original gambling limit from your bank and credit cards," it counsels in pamphlets and on its website.

Yet bank machines dot the gaming floors and bookend many rows of slots.

In contrast, British Columbia and Saskatchewan don't allow ATMs on the gaming floors.

Manitoba doesn't allow them in casinos at all. "We got advice from the (Addictions Foundation of Manitoba) that that would be risky for people with gambling problems," explained Bev Mehmel, manager of responsible gambling for the Manitoba Lotteries Corp.

The OLGC also warns: "Do not borrow money from family, friends or acquaintances to play at gaming facilities."

Yet Ontario, alone among the provinces, allows customers to borrow from the casinos themselves. The customer may name the amount desired, which is subject to a credit check.

Quebec's rationale for not offering credit was similar to that of other provinces. "No one ever plays with money fronted by a Quebec casino," says Jean-Pierre Roy, spokesperson for Loto-Quebec. "That was put in place to try and curb compulsive gambling and help people from overplaying."

"If people need credit to gamble, it's probably not a sign they should be gambling," says Bill Davies, of the Saskatchewan Gaming Corp.

Manitoba doesn't allow credit card advances or cheques.

At Casino Rama, near Orillia, pamphlets on gambling problems and where to find help can be found right next to applications for credit.

"It's a very mixed message," says Nina Littman-Sharp, manager of the problem gambling service at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "It's saying, `Come have fun,' right next to information on problem gambling." She says the ease with which gamblers can access money could compound their problems: "The quicker people can get money, the more those who are already tempted will get into trouble."

Teresa Roncon, spokesperson for the gaming corporation, says convenience is important to casino customers, hence the bank machines and lines of credit.

"This province has one of the most comprehensive and well-funded problem gambling programs in North America," Roncon says. This year, $36 million, or 2 per cent of all slot revenue, was earmarked for counselling, treatment and research.

Yet there are signs Ontario is falling behind in dealing with problem gambling.

Other provinces, such as British Columbia and Quebec, have paid for special advertising that promotes responsible gambling. In Alberta and Quebec, casinos are allowed to publicize only entertainment facilities, such as restaurants and shows, not the gambling experience.

In contrast, Ontario spends more than $247 million advertising and promoting its gambling products, including casinos, racetracks and lotteries. Even more $280 million is spent on promotions such as complimentary meals and hotel rooms for frequent customers.

Yet Ontario spends nothing on separate ads to promote responsible gambling. Its advertising simply inserts the line: "Know your limit, play within it."

"We certainly feel we're getting the message across to our customers by embedding it in our advertising," says another corporation spokesperson.


`The government is in partnership with the gambling industry, promoting it rather than controlling it.''


Doug Little, reformed gambler


Institutions and professionals who treat problem gamblers, and receive gambling corporation funding indirectly through the Ministry of Health, say they have no money for advertising.

Lisa Root, team leader for the problem gambling program at the Niagara Alcohol and Drug Assessment Service in St. Catharines, says her agency could barely afford a line in the telephone book. "We were able to squeak out of (our operating budget enough) to put one line in the Yellow Pages. That's all we can afford," Root says. "We need money to advertise."

Root says many people don't get treatment because they don't know it exists.

"Almost all of the people who come to us are self-referred. They're not coming to us through the usual referral means such as a physician or a mental health practitioner. That's an awareness issue."As gambling has expanded in Ontario, the number of people seeking treatment has risen.

Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Barry McLellan, told the Star he is considering launching an inquest into gambling-related suicides. While there were just four in 1998, when coroners began to take notice, this year is on track for up to 15. "It's obviously a concern for us," McLellan says.

Revenue generated by gambling in Ontario is impressive by any measure. Profits go to social programs and health care as well as charities. Most studies indicate that more than 95 per cent of adults can gamble without running into difficulty.

But there is a social and economic cost to gambling.

It is before noon, and already Casino Rama is teeming with thousands of gamblers, staring intently at slot monitors or the flimsy cards before them.

Outside, the parking lot is nearly full. Gamblers emerge from the casino's smoky dimness into stark morning light.

Did you win anything?

"Lost $50." "Lost $200." "Lost $130," come the squinted replies. They've come from all over the province, many on casino-subsizided buses.

Retired Chrysler technician Ivan Mijatovic is here from Brampton with his wife.

"It's a nice outing," he says. As to possible casino expansion, he says: "I think it's a government money grab. I know some whose marriages have ended. I think it's getting out of hand."

Inside, the problem gamblers aren't hard to find.

With withered hands, Mel, a silver-haired 68-year-old veteran, tries to grasp his wad of crisp brown $100 bills and a few twenties while feeding the Lucky 7s slot machine again. He's already put in $150. He is surrounded by flashing electronic gaming consoles with playful names like "Tailgate Party" or "The Price is Right."

He's what experts call a severe problem gambler.

"Money is just paper," Mel says, barely glancing at the screen as he hits the "play" button. "I get my old age pension. If I lose it, it's free money. I don't care. I worked all my life."

The retired pavement pourer says he lost $20,000 here last year. He hasn't learned from 1988, when he says he sold his house and both his trucks to gamble, and ended up with nothing. "When you go to sleep at night," he says, "you can still see the wheels spinning."

If he needs more cash, a bank machine is one step away. And loyalty cards promise free food and special discounts.

Doug Little stole $80,000 from two Orillia festivals and the town's downtown business association in the mid-'90s to gamble at Casino Rama.

Now, with his life back on track, he has become a severe critic of the industry.

"The government is in partnership with the gambling industry, promoting it rather than controlling it," he says. "It should say, `No bank machines, no credit,' because people don't have the opportunity to have second thoughts about what they're doing."

In some European countries, such as the Netherlands, gamblers who have lingered in a casino too long may be questioned. In Switzerland, casino staff are trained to spot the signs of a compulsive gambler.

Ontario's casinos, by comparison, are fairly hands off. Unless they're visibly in distress, addicts usually have to ask for help.

About 1,500 people a year ask to be barred from the casinos in a voluntary self-exclusion program, but they're a small minority of problem gamblers. Enforcing the ban is almost impossible and the corporation says it can't commit to doing so.

"There is more (the government) could be doing to direct people into treatment and prevent problems," says Littman-Sharp. She recommends using player cards to control and record entry to gambling facilities.

"It's scandalous," Little adds. "It's not something (where) the government can just say: `Well, gambling is here forever and there's nothing we can do about it.' It's not just a game."