Look who’s gambling now

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By Lori Fazari

Lynn Nichols is perched on a stool in front of the Lucky Sevens slot mating at Casino Rama, oblivious to the din of music, bells and conversation around her. She’s intent on her task: feeding $1 tokens, three at a time, to the two slot machines between her. The 42-year-old has gambled here almost every day since the casino opened a year ago. “It’s a problem,” she says, though she won’t quit or get help because she enjoys it. “I don’t drink and I don’t party or anything, so it’s just something for me to do.”

She isn’t the only one being milked. Lately, everywhere one turns another gambling option appears: four large casinos have opened in Ontario since 1994 and 44 permanent charity mini-casinos will soon replace the roaming ones. Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) may turn up at casinos, race tracks, bars, and restaurants near you. As more forms of gambling are legalized, more people — increasingly young people and women — are gambling and risking addiction.

Critics wonder if the government has the biggest addiction, cashing in by legalizing more forms of gambling, which already bring in about $1 billion for the province. In addition to the economic boon from increased tourist revenue and employment, the funds raised for the government — which takes a 20 per cent cut of casino revenues — keep taxes down and contribute to health care, education and other social services. For its part, the government has given $1 million in the last three years to fund gambling addiction programs and research. Another $8 or $9 million is earmarked for such purposes if VLTs arrive.

Estimates suggest VLTs are a $1 billion industry. Though critics call them the rack cocaine of gambling, at least one man can’t wait for them to arrive. Marshall Pollock is president and CEO of the Ontario Video Gaming Corporation. “It’s a harmless form of entertainment,” Pollock says. He insists the 15,000 VLTs his private sector company wants to bring to Ontario won’t turn us all into compulsive gamblers. “Prohibition of this activity for the vast majority of people who do not have a problem is not going to help the people who are predisposed to it,” he says.

Even those who oppose gambling can’t argue with that. However, when it’s easier to gamble more people become addicted. At the University of Windsor, studies done in the area before Casino Windsor opened show that up to 1.3 per cent of women surveyed were found to be problem gamblers. After it opened the numbers almost double to two per cent of women. “The trend was toward more gambling for women closer to the level of men,” says Dr. Ron Frisch, psychologist and director of the Problem Gambling Research Group at the university’s psychology department. Males were twice as likely as women to be pathological gamblers before Casino Windsor came to town. “There’s no difference between them currently,” Frisch says.

Stan Ash, a counsellor with the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling (CFCG), has been referring more women for treatment to groups like Gamblers Anonymous (GA). “A lot more women have come into the program and they are having some groups where it’s just women,” he says.

Sue Nelson (not her real name) is one woman getting help. She’s on the slow track to recovery with GA (a self-help 12-step group) after eight years of compulsive gambling on Nevada tickets, the tear-open lottery tickets that cost a measly 50 cents. “That’s what makes them to tempting and tantalizing,” she says. “I couldn’t control it. I just wanted to keep ripping tickets until I was buying $20, $50, $100 at a time. It was like being high on drugs.” The 47-year-old started buying Nevada tickets at bingo halls. She was hooked when they became available at corner stores in her East York neighbourhood.

She gambled to avoid her problems, blowing from $30,000 to $40,000, sometimes buying hundreds of dollars worth in one shot and often locking herself in the bathroom to rip them open. At these scales, gambling was not about winning. To Nelson, the one hundred dollar maximum prize meant 200 more tickets, not the new shoes she needed. “I’ve bought one ticket, won $100, and still left broke,” Nelson says. “It seemed to mask any pain or difficulties in my life.”

“Women who gamble are more likely to be single, separated or divorced,” says Rosa Dragonetti, counsellor and research associate at the Addiction Research Foundation (ARF). “That’s why they turn to gambling — to escape their problems.”

Nelson’s marriage of 17 years is on the brink of collapse, caused partly by gambling. “I just made bad things worse.” She’s determined to keep her family together for her two teenage children. It’s hard to do with a husband who doesn’t understand what she’s going through.

“If a woman has a gambling problem, her husband is more likely to leave her than a woman leaving a gambling husband,” Dragonetti says.

Parents who gamble set an example for their children. “The more parents have problems with their gambling, the more likely their kids will have problems with gambling,” says Frisch. A study of 14-to-19-year-olds in Windsor before the casino opened concluded that 5.1 per cent were problem gamblers and another 9.4 per cent were high-risk gamblers. “What we have now is a three or four times greater level of gambling than adults have,” says Frisch. However, such studies are new and it’s unknown whether gambling problems, like other forms of risky behaviour, diminish as a person matures. “We do have the data that supports that problem gambling starts early in life,” Frisch says. It can sometimes start even younger than 12 years old.

The University of Windsor study found that 17.1 per cent on young adults had borrowed or stolen money to gamble or pay off gambling debts. For those who are out of control, getting help is a difficult task. Many young people won’t commit to visiting therapists or going to self-help groups. “They’re not likely to get treatment,” says Frisch. Before treatment can begin, individuals must admit gambling has taken control of their life, which usually comes after hitting rock bottom.

Nelson hit rock bottom and got help in April last year after gambling away the rent money. “The first (GA) meeting I went to I had one bus ticket and I didn’t know how I was going to get home. I had spent everything to the last dime.” She relapsed into gambling after six months of attending GA meetings regularly. Buying one ticket unleashed her compulsive behaviour again. “I did more damage than I ever did in my life,” she says. She contemplated suicide and broke down last December. “I found myself walking the streets at two in the morning, frightened to go home. I decided it was time to tell people.” She now owes $11,000 to credit unions, friends and family she lied to form money. “I’ve been clean and I’m going to stay that way.”

Not every story has such promise. At the CFCG, the harsh realities of gambling hit home for executive director Tibor Barsony. “I just talked to a mother whose 25-year-old son recently committed suicide because of gambling-related problems.”

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