Playing With Fire: Nova Scotia Shutters Gambling Awareness Program While Considering Legal Online Casino Gaming
Dreamstime/Andres Barrionuevo Lopez
Gambling Awareness Nova Scotia (GANS) is no more.
Nova Scotia’s Department of Health (DOH) quietly shuttered the non-profit, arms-length government organization in late 2020. Its functions were research, prevention, and awareness campaigns related to gambling addiction. GANS was responsible for receiving and distributing funds to support communities in their efforts to reduce problem gambling’s damaging effects.
Those funds come from a percentage of video lottery terminal (VLT) revenues, matched by Gaming Nova Scotia. The money, along with GANS’s core functions, have been folded back into the general coffer for Mental Health and Addictions at the DOH.
The move’s timing is being panned by critics. They cite the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Atlantic Lottery Corporation’s (ALC) plans to expand online casino gaming to most Atlantic provinces.
“This is the time when people are most vulnerable,” says Bruce Dienes, chair of Gambling Risk Informed Nova Scotia, a non-profit aiming to reduce harms associated with gambling, in a recent report by the CBC on GANS’s dissolution. “In the middle of COVID … isn’t there more of a need to do this prevention work and community awareness work?”
ALC adds casino games amid pandemic profit crunch
ALC launched online casino games in New Brunswick as a pilot project in August 2020. Six months later, spurred by falling profits, it is preparing to do the same in Nova Scotia and PEI. So far, there are no similar plans for Newfoundland.
The high stakes limits it has set have been the focus of much of the criticism. Currently, ALC’s online casino allows players to gamble up to $100 per pull on slots. One blackjack games allows bets of up to $500 on a single hand. By contrast, New Brunswick VLTs are capped at a maximum of $2.50 per spin.
ALC defends the higher maximums as necessary to compete against offshore sites. These operate in largely unregulated fashion and often have no limits at all. Nonetheless, those on the front lines of gambling addiction predict that the increased limits and new products will compound the problem.
Another CBC report on the proposed expansion included comments from Elizabeth Stephen, a Halifax-based therapist with over 20-years of experience treating gambling addictions. She says that the ALC’s online casino will further legitimize gambling. She fears it will attract players who would never brave an offshore site.
Stephen believes that if the provinces allow online gambling, the regulations should be even stricter than in person play. Since the opposite seems to be the case on ALC’s pilot site, she expects addictions to soar along with profits.
“From my perspective, the risks far outweigh the profits,” says Stephen. “Someone has to lose in order for us to make money.”
Stakes are high as federal government eyes sports betting
Stakes are exceptionally high as the federal government has seemingly changed its tune on sports betting. Members of the ruling Liberal minority now back the push to legalize single-event sports betting in Canada. They had previously resisted the call from opposition parties since coming into power in 2015.
To date, the only legal form of sports betting in Canada has been parlay tickets such as Pro-Line, offered through provincial lotteries. But, with the tabling of Bill C-13 by Minister of Justice David Lametti in late November 2020, it looks as though the Federal Government is getting closer to removing the federal prohibition on single-game wagering. The goal is to recapture some of the estimated $14 billion Canadians spend annually on sports betting on offshore sites.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on Canadian gambling revenues, as it has across industries. A year in, operators and governments are feeling the pinch more than ever. Moreover, the nascent US sports betting market is growing explosively. This, in turn, is making it harder for Canadian casino operators to compete with cross-border competition, especially as states like Michigan enter the fray.
It’s a problem, however, that provinces are clawing back much-needed supports just as the Canadian gambling industry is set to explode. Online casinos and sports betting represent a huge opportunity. However, they come with additional risks. If provinces are going to pursue this opportunity, they have an obligation to mitigate those risks at the same time.
Provinces hedge their bets
Nova Scotia’s move to dissolve GANS isn’t the only example. In 2019, Ontario shuttered Gambling Research Exchange Ontario. As the name suggests, this organzation was dedicated to studying problem gambling. Doug Ford’s provincial government shut it down just as the province began its push to privatize online casinos.
More troubling still are recent legislative changes by New Brunswick (2019) and Nova Scotia (early 2020). These are designed to protect the government, its ministers, lotto corporations, and operators from class-action lawsuits and punitive damages related to gambling.
(The Nova Scotia Department of Health did not respond to inquiries about the shuttering of GANS, ALC’s proposed expansion, and changes to liability legislation).
One of the main advantages legalized, regulated gambling has over the black market is its potential to be safer for players and communities. Realizing that potential, however, requires that legislators and regulators take their responsibilities seriously.
If they fail in their jobs, even regulated markets can exhibit the same sorts of problems that plague the offshore industry. In Canada, such problems are already apparent in British Columbia, where lax government oversight of high-stakes betting opened the door to money laundering.
The goal is to build a sustainable gambling industry, both retail and online. Doing that means striking the correct balance between profitability and harm reduction. Increasing government revenue through legal gambling is good only so long as some of that money goes towards addictions support, awareness and other initiatives.
To get there we need industry and regulators to work together to raise the bar, not lower it. If we can do that, we may all win.