Critics question AGLC decision to expand access to slot machines

AGLC changed the rules “to be more responsive to consumers and casino operators,” a spokesperson said, but critics say increased access to slot machines could be harmful for people addicted to the machines.

Machines to join poker as permitted 24-hour activity

Slot machines, pictured here in the now-closed Northlands casino, could become a lot more accessible if casinos take advantage of a new rule change by AGLC. (David Bajer/CBC )

Gambling experts are questioning an Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis decision to expand access to slot machines.

Slot machines can currently operate between 10 a.m. and 3 a.m., but AGLC spokesperson Heather Holmen said casinos will eventually be able to run the machines 24 hours per day. 

The change will be optional and it will only apply to slot machines, she said. The only other gaming activity that is allowed to run 24 hours per day is poker, which is currently offered at 11 of the province's 28 gaming venues.

AGLC changed the rules "to be more responsive to consumers and casino operators," Holmen said, bringing Alberta in line with other provinces that already allow 24-hour slots.

But critics fear increased access could be harmful for people addicted to gambling with the machines.

Garry Smith, a former researcher with the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, called the move "a money grab" in an interview with CBC's Radio Active on Monday.

According to AGLC's latest annual report, revenues from slot machines, video lottery terminals (VLTs) and electronic bingo totalled $1.736 billion in 2019, down slightly from 2018.

Revenue from those sources, minus commissions and other expenses, used to go to the Alberta Lottery Fund, but the provincial government dissolved the fund this fall and transferred the money to general revenue.

David Hodgins, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary and research co-ordinator for the Alberta Gambling Research Institute, said slot machines are among the most harmful types of gambling because "people get overly involved with them and begin to lose control."

Hodgins called the policy a move in the wrong direction.

"We really should be moving toward more consumer protection and reducing the likelihood of harm," he said.

Smith said a seven-hour break from slot machines can break the cycle of addiction.

"Maybe you'll come to your senses before you run out of money," he said. "It just helps."

    'Supporting player wellness'

    Holmen said in an email that AGLC is "committed to supporting player wellness" and that Alberta casinos have resources to help people whose gambling has become a problem.

    All Alberta casinos and community gaming centres have GameSense Info Centres (GSICs) near the gaming floor, where advisors answer questions and assist gamblers who need help.

    Casino staff also undergo mandatory social responsibility training, Holmen said. 

    Casinos were informed of the rule change a few weeks ago, but it had been in the works for a long time, said Vince Pao, director of marketing for Pure Canadian Gaming. The company has casinos in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge.

    "It's something that we welcome but we need to ensure that the agency and operators all work together to ensure that there's a strong social responsibility component to that, and the responsible gaming component is addressed," Pao said.

    Pao said the company will need to ensure it has enough staff to handle 24-hour gaming and wants to work with the province on guidelines for establishing consistent hours of operation in Alberta.