An average of six people a year kill themselves in Nova Scotia because of problem gambling, according to a draft report that the provincial government initially tried to keep from being publicized because of its methodology.
The estimate is contained in a draft report that examined the social and economic impacts of gambling. It was shelved two years ago by the Nova Scotia government.
'We're making the best-educated guesses we can' —Researcher Mark Anielski
The NDP government strongly disputes the report's conclusions, saying it is littered with errors and flaws in its research.
The report, commissioned by a previous Tory government as part of a provincial gaming strategy in 2005, cautions that there are data gaps — Nova Scotia does not publish the number of all suicides annually, for instance.
But the study says it provides "a reasonably complete snapshot" of gambling's socio-economic impact on the province, given the information that is available.
"Although … there is no definitive number of these suicides that can be directly linked to a gambling addiction, it is possible to estimate the annual gambling-related suicides ranged from 6.8 in 1996 to a low of 4.0 in 2000," the report says.
Researcher Mark Anielski produced estimates of the number of suicides based on suicide figures from health authorities as well as expert advice.
He cites two experts, including a Health Department official, who he says estimate that six per cent of all suicides in the province may be related to problem gambling. The government denies that the Health Department official provided that estimate.
Anielski said he always made clear to the government that there was no other way to make the estimate because the coroner and police don't keep any records to link gambling to suicides.
"Until police and coroners begin to collect information related to gambling, we're making the best-educated guesses we can," he said in an interview.
The Canadian Press and an anti-gambling group called Game Over VLTs applied for the release of the report from the province's Department of Labour under access-to-information legislation.
The government refused to provide the study a year ago. But it relented after both parties successfully appealed to the review officer, who rejected the government's position that the study couldn't be released because of errors in methodology, saying the public can make its own judgment.
The final draft of the report was submitted by a consultant in September 2009, a couple of months before his contract was terminated by the government.
'Problems and deficiencies'
"People are now free to see the entire report in the context of its many problems and deficiencies," Labour Minister Marilyn More said in a statement.
"I expect that any objective review will lead to the same conclusion that we reached — that the study is simply unreliable and should be cast aside."
Anielski defended his research, saying he thinks the findings should still be considered by public officials and that he was upfront about his research methodology.
"We were clear we were dealing with a small sample size," Anielski said.
He points out that the province released a study in 2007 based on the same group of problem gamblers he interviewed for his report.
"Our point is that the province accepted previous studies that had the same small sample size and then questioned our approach going back to the very researcher that did the very research they endorsed."
His study also says that 11 of the 55 problem gamblers interviewed by phone in 2008 say they've experienced either mental or physical health problems due to gambling.
The report makes no recommendations.
Echoes earlier findings
The study echoes findings of previous studies that indicate that video lottery terminals are the main source of gambling addiction in the province.
In announcing a new gambling strategy in March, the government maintained a moratorium on new VLTs. The original moratorium was introduced in 2005 as part of a plan that removed 1,000 of the machines.
Nova Scotia regulates 2,200 VLTs, while about 600 more are operated through agreements with First Nations bands.
About $99.5 million of $146 million in gambling revenues in 2009-10 came from VLTs, according to government figures.