British Columbia·GO PUBLIC

Gambling addict says B.C. government lacks will to set limits on billion-dollar industry

A Victoria woman says the B.C. government hasn’t made good on a promise to introduce a system that could limit spending by severe gambling addicts like her because provincial governments have become increasingly dependent on gambling revenues.

Province's attorney general agrees certain protections ‘should have been in place a long time ago’

Lora Bertuccio wants the B.C. government to introduce a program that would allow people with gambling addictions to use their loyalty cards to set spending and time limits at casinos. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Lora Bertuccio is calling out the B.C. government for falling down on a promise to help prevent severely addicted gamblers like her from spending money they can't afford to lose.

"They're cashing in on mental illness," said the 47-year-old from Victoria, who also suffers from bipolar disorder and severe anxiety.

Bertuccio said she has lost thousands of dollars gambling in B.C. casinos. Sometimes, even while crying, she can't help but keep putting money in the slot machines, she said.

"It's like a volcano that's building in your gut. It compels me to go to the machines."

It's estimated that Canadians spent about $17.3 billion last year on government-run gambling, but provincial governments only funnel a small portion of those revenues back into programs to help people with gambling addictions. 

Bertuccio said casino loyalty cards need to allow players using slot machines to set time and spending limits to help prevent gambling problems from spiralling out of control.

The B.C. Lottery Corporation said it would introduce such a "pre-commitment card" program by 2015. Limited testing has only recently begun.

"They talk and talk, and never do anything," Bertuccio said. "Without this, I'm doomed."

Gambles in 'trance'

A "gambling disorder" is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a behavioural disorder that causes people to suffer significant problems or distress because of repeated gambling. 

Bertuccio says her bipolar disorder sometimes causes her to go into a manic state and lose track of her actions — a particularly dangerous situation sitting at a slot machine.

"I go into a trance," she said. "I lose track of time and space."

Lora Bertuccio made a video to demonstrate how quickly she can lose money. She sometimes plays two or three slot machines at the same time while in what she describes as a 'manic state.' (Submitted by Lora Bertuccio)

She said a medication adjustment this past spring caused her to become manic and gamble away almost $20,000 — money she had won in a settlement after injuring her back at work.

She is now on disability welfare, due to her back injury and bipolar disorder.

'It's unacceptable'

In an interview with Go Public, B.C. Attorney General David Eby, who is responsible for the B.C. Lottery Corporation, said he agrees with Bertuccio that the government should be doing more to protect people like her.

"It's unacceptable that this was recommended in 2015 and it's still not been implemented," he said of pre-commitment cards.

He acknowledged there have been "horrific examples" of tragedies in B.C. where people with gambling addictions have stolen from employers, stolen from sports leagues, and even killed themselves.

His NDP government came to power in May 2017 but has yet to act on its Liberal predecessor's promise to introduce a voluntary system to help control how much gamblers lose at the slots.

"We're behind," he said.

Gambling addicts boost bottom line

Governments across the country are reluctant to implement programs that curb problem gambling, said Robert Williams, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Lethbridge, as well as a researcher at the Alberta Gambling Research Institute

"Too much money is at stake for them," said Williams, a leading expert in the field of gambling and addiction.

Across Canada, research has found that people with mental illness and gambling addictions are small in number but contribute disproportionately to gambling revenues.

According to the Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario, about three per cent of Canadians are severely addicted to gambling, but they are responsible for approximately one-third of all gambling revenues.

"This would be problematic if it was a commercial provider, where a third of all your revenues came from vulnerable people," Williams said. "But when it's government, it's actually kind of scandalous."

Gambling researcher Robert Williams says most prevention programs for gamblers are 'window dressing' — ineffective and designed to make governments look as though they’re helping addicts. (CBC)

Williams said research shows that pre-commitment card programs would help some gambling addicts and would also be useful for people considered "at risk" of developing a gambling addiction.

But it is just one of many changes needed to effectively curb problem gambling, he said.

"Gambling should not be allowed to happen 24 hours a day," he said, referring to the rules in B.C. "It's clear that people gambling at two or three in the morning are not your recreational gamblers."

Alcohol on the gaming floor should also be limited, he said.

Placing bank machines in inconvenient locations would help as well, he said, as would having an effective — the key word — self-exclusion program that would allow addicts to sign up to be turned away at the casino door. 

"The problem we have in Canada is that we have a whole raft of so-called responsible gambling initiatives, but none of them work particularly well," he said. "So it all looks very good on paper, but the money keeps coming in."

'There are people who've suffered'

In a report released five years ago, B.C.'s recently retired provincial officer of health, Perry Kendall, urged the government to spend more money on a range of measures to try to protect people with gambling addictions.

He recently told Go Public he was disappointed that many of the measures have still not been implemented — including a pre-commitment system like the one Lora Bertuccio says is overdue.

Former B.C. provincial health officer Perry Kendall, seen here with his report 'Lower the Stakes: A public health approach to problem gambling,' says governments have to increase supports for gamblers, instead of relying on revenues from an industry that 'knowingly harms people.' (Michael McArthur/CBC)

"I think it's a shame," Kendall said. "It's a missed opportunity, and probably there are people who've suffered because of the absence of such a program."

His report pointed out the B.C. government spent less of its gambling revenue on supports for gambling addicts than any other province, and recommended allocating at least 1.5 per cent of gaming revenue to responsible gambling initiatives.

Last year, the B.C. government allocated $5.6 million for those initiatives, representing .4 per cent of its $1.4 billion gambling take — far below Kendall's suggested figure.

"I think there's a moral and ethical question here," Kendall said. "In your search for greater revenues, do you continue to knowingly harm people? Or do you decide there's going to be a cut point?"

By the numbers:

  • B.C. Lottery Corporation generated total revenues of  $3.27B
  • Slot machines generated $1.37B
  • The province received a net income from BCLC of $1.4B
  • Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch contributed $5.6 million to problem gambling services

(Fiscal year 2017/2018, Province of British Columbia)

System tried elsewhere

Pre-commitment cards are already available in a handful of jurisdictions around the world, including in Ontario, where two casinos offer the cards and there are plans to roll out the system across the province.

Nova Scotia put a voluntary system in place in 2010 that allowed players to set spending and time limits on video lottery terminals, and then made the program mandatory for all players two years later.

But the program was scrapped in 2014. The government at the time said the program was a failure because people were using multiple cards, which defeated the purpose. Opposition critics and gambling researchers such as Williams said it was cancelled because the government lost too much money. VLT revenues dropped by $31.3 million from 2012 to 2014.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby, responsible for the B.C. Lottery Corporation, says the government is behind on increasing supports for people with gambling addictions. (Frederic Gagnon/CBC)

B.C.'s attorney general says he's "willing to take a haircut" on gaming revenues to help those most vulnerable.

Eby also pointed out that his government moved responsibility for the gaming industry from the Finance Ministry to the Ministry of the Attorney General when it took power in 2017. 

"The B.C. Lottery Corporation should not be responsible for both revenue generation and regulation."

More testing?

Meanwhile, a three-month pilot of a card system similar to the one Bertuccio is calling for wrapped up at two casinos in Kamloops in July.

The B.C. Lottery Corporation said a labour dispute with unionized casino workers interfered with the pilot and delayed the assessment of the data. It now says it's considering doing more testing, and is reviewing findings from other North American jurisdictions with similar tools.

Slot machines generated a total revenue of $1.37 billion in British Columbia last year. (CBC)

Lora Bertuccio says the odds of seeing the system actually implemented in B.C. are slim.

"Every year they can delay is hundreds of millions of dollars more that they can take in... I need and want protection."

— With files from Enza Uda

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Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.