Alberta will take in more money from gambling than it will from oilsands royalties, according to provincial budget forecasts for 2009-10.
Oilsands revenue is expected to drop to about $1 billion this year because of the global recession, but gambling revenue will remain steady at about $1.5 billion, according to the forecasts. Charities are expected to directly collect another $325 million from gambling revenue, mostly through volunteering at casinos.
Alberta already raked in the highest amount per capita in gambling revenue among the provinces at $871 for every adult resident in 2007-08, according to the Canadian Gambling Digest. The national average was only $547.
Alberta gambling: who wins, who loses
This week CBC Calgary is taking an in-depth look at Alberta's addiction to gambling revenue.
For more information see our feature, Alberta gambling.
The province's prosperity is just one of the reasons behind that figure, Fred Lindsay, the minister in charge of gaming in the province, told CBC News as part of a series on gambling in Alberta.
"Albertans are entrepreneurial, they are risk takers and that kind of falls into this category. But again Alberta has a relatively young population and we have highest wages in the country so there is more disposable income," he said.
"When people have a few extra dollars in their jeans, so to speak, they want to go out to be entertained and this is one form of that — where they get their entertainment."
'Really sad commentary on our way of life'
The Alberta government couldn't function without gambling revenue, said Pastor Dale Hansen, the head of a group of Rocky Mountain House residents that banned VLTs in their community about 350 kilometres northwest of Calgary.
"The province has come to the place where they rely heavily on the income that they receive from gambling — all forms of gambling — and they really don't know how they would function without that large percentage of their income," he said.
"I think it is a really sad commentary on our way of life that we are dependent on the inability of people to turn off the switch to provide revenue for the many types of services that we need in our community."
Besides the provincial government, charities are the other winner when it comes to gambling in Alberta. Running a casino is much more lucrative than a bake sale. In fact, the waiting list for groups wanting to volunteer handling chips and cash in a Calgary casino is about two years.
The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission allows volunteers from charities and community groups to work in the gambling operations, generally for a two-day period. Essentially, the charities are given a cut from the table and slots revenue at the casino where their group volunteered.
Last week, one such group trying to raise about $120,000 for a new playground at Capitol Hill elementary school in northwest Calgary expected to make $77,000 in just two days of volunteering. Once that money is raised, they will qualify for provincial matching grants that could cover the rest of the cost of the playground.
"The bottom line is this is the quickest, fastest way to get us a new playground for our children at the school. It's not rocket science. It's not hard. It's been not a difficult experience. I have had a lot of fun, met the other parents, so it has been a positive experience for our group," said Lauren Chabot-Cragg.
If the provincial coffers and charities are the winners, the losers are problem gamblers.
The Alberta Gaming Research Institute estimates that between one and two per cent of Albertans are considered problem gamblers – which could mean the problem has reached a depth where they are missing mortgage payments or contemplating suicide – while another two to three per cent have some problems.
Growing number of slot machines
VLTs and slot machines bring in 85 per cent of Alberta's gambling revenues. Alberta has 6,000 VLTs – a number that has been capped – and a growing stable of more than 12,000 slot machines.
University of Calgary Prof. David Hodgins of the Alberta Gaming Research Institute, which is funded by the province, said his biggest concern is electronic gaming machines, which are often the choice for problem gamblers, who generate about 80 per cent of the gambling revenue collected by the province.
"The reason for that, in part, is the speed of the feedback. So people can play many games very quickly. And any particular game is relatively inexpensive, it's easy to learn, it's easy to access and you get very quick feedback," he said.
Lindsay said Alberta has programs in place to help gambling addicts.
The province gave the Alberta Alcohol & Drug Abuse Commission $90 million from the Alberta Lottery Fund in 2008-09. Besides multi-media campaigns and training for industry staff on spotting problem gamblers, the agency opened Responsible Gaming Information Centres in 16 of Alberta's 24 casinos. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission also spends about $1.1 million a year on "social responsibility" programs, including one that allows people to ban themselves from casinos.
"The vast majority people who go to these facilities go there for entertainment," Lindsay said. "That being said we know there are a number of people who are susceptible to becoming problem gamblers so that's why we have the Responsible Gaming Information Centres."