Online gambling in Quebec surged during 1st year of pandemic: study

Gambling addiction worker says Quebec needs an independent regulator and calls for the government to step in to put limits on advertising.

3 times as many people betting online in 2020-21 compared to 2018, researcher says

Man sits in front on computer playing online slots
Online gambling rose by 10 percentage points from 2018 to 2021, according to a study by Concordia University and Université Laval. (Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock)

The number of Quebecers gambling online shot up during the first year of the pandemic, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Concordia University and Université Laval.

"The first main result is that 15 per cent of the population are gambling online compared to 2018 [where] we were at five per cent," said Sylvia Kairouz, professor in the department of anthropology and sociology and the Research Chair on Gambling at Concordia University. 

"That's a major increase."

While some gamblers migrated online with the closing of gambling venues like casinos, the first year of the pandemic also saw an uptick in new online gamblers, according to the study, with sports betting in particular as a popular choice for gamblers.

"Sports betting was something that was very marginal in Canada 10 years ago, and now we're seeing a really significant increase, " said Kairouz.

Changes to the law in Canada allowing people to bet on individual games and various elements within a game — for example, the performance of a player — in part explain the increase in sports betting, says Kairouz.

A woman stands in a university.
'We need a regulator that is independent,' says Sylvia Kairouz, professor in the department of anthropology and sociology and the Research Chair on Gambling at Concordia University (Paula Dayan Perez/CBC)

When asked why they gambled online, most respondents said it was to have fun or kill time, but others said they felt isolated and lonely, said Kairouz.

The prevalence of advertising also played a major part.

According to the study, 88 per cent of online gamblers saw or heard advertisements for online gambling. Half of them said they had observed an increase in the number of advertisements for online gambling during the first year of the pandemic.

Another 20 per cent of respondents said their gambling habits were influenced by advertisements during those 12 months.

Anne Elizabeth Lapointe, executive director of the Maison Jean Lapointe, a semi-private non-profit organization that treats people with addictions, including gambling addiction, says she isn't surprised by those numbers.

She confirms the situation on the ground has changed dramatically since the start of the pandemic.

Nine out of every 10 people getting treatment there for gambling struggle with online gambling she says — over 350 people altogether.

"During the pandemic, you were home, you had nothing else to do then online or in front of the television and you saw advertisements all the time. It is tempting because… they sell this dream that you can make money gambling."

Nowadays, gambling is always at one's fingertips, and that means temptation is never far away.

"You have it with your phone, your laptop, you can gamble anytime a day, [and] no one knows what you're doing," she said. She said she thinks online gambling is here to stay.

"You don't have to get out of your house … and because it's online, you don't use tangible money, so you lose track of the money you're spending very, very easily."

Calls for regulation

Both Kairouz and Lapointe are calling for more regulations to protect Quebecs from the risks of online gambling.

"We need to have a regulator that is independent that can look at the [types of] gambling offered and whenever there is a game that will be offered, it goes through the regulator to assess the risk for the population," said Kairouz.

Safeguards should include imposing conditions to protect gamblers who are losing control of their gaming habits and limiting the number of advertisements they are exposed to, she said.

Banning all advertisements for gambling may seem like a dream but Canada could follow in the footsteps of Belgium, which decided to prohibit advertising across platforms earlier this month, Kairouz says.

Lapointe is also calling on the government to step in, comparing possible restrictions on gambling advertising, both legal and illegal, to the restrictions on advertising cannabis.

"In Quebec, they can do whatever they want. They don't advertise every form of gambling, but they do advertise many different types of games" she said. "You can play a game on your phone like Candy Crush and see an ad."

Lapointe also pointed to Loto-Québec, which she says needs to do more to limit the number of gambling advertisements Quebecers are exposed to, saying the company has carte blanche to do as it pleases when it comes to advertising.

Loto-Québec declined to be interviewed by CBC. In a statement, it said it made the decision not to advertise online gambling during the pandemic, even while illegal operators advertised heavily.

It says it has taken action to counter illegal advertising in television and sports, and it is in talks with the government about regulations.

According to Quebec's Finance Ministry, Loto-Québec has taken steps to promote responsible gambling in its advertising and on its site.

"We are continuing our efforts to limit access to illegal sites, reinforce the state-owned company's position as the sole responsible online gambling operator and reduce the presence of advertisements," it said in a statement. "Federal legislation does not allow us to block access to unauthorized operators' sites."

LISTEN | New study finds online gambling went up significantly during COVID:

The popularity of online gambling jumped during the pandemic- according to a new study out of Concordia University. Researchers are hoping the government will do better to accompany people who play online.



Joe Bongiorno is an award-winning author, former high school teacher, and a journalist at the CBC. He has also reported for Maisonneuve, Canada’s National Observer, Ricochet Media, The Rover and others.

with files from Paula Dayan Perez


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