Nova Scotia

Therapist worries new online casino will draw in people that wouldn't otherwise play

A counselling therapist and gambling strategist is concerned the launch of an online casino for Nova Scotia by the Atlantic Lottery Corporation will lead to more people playing the games than would otherwise consider it.

Lottery officials say new games will have a variety of player protection features

Atlantic Lotto launched an online casino for New Brunswick residents in August of 2020. The Crown corporation is now preparing to roll out a site for Nova Scotia. (CBC)

A counselling therapist with a specialty in gambling is concerned the launch of an online casino for Nova Scotia by the Atlantic Lottery Corporation will lead to more people playing the games and increased problems.

Last week, the Nova Scotia government signed off on the process to develop and permit the use of the casino-style online games. Officials with ALC and the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation have said the move is necessary to counteract the growing prominence of offshore websites that don't have consistent safety features and don't return revenue to the province.

The ALC has estimated the websites cost it as much as $100 million a year. A spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation said that estimate isn't considered a dollar-for-dollar loss, but rather an estimate of revenue missed based on certain products not being offered here.

In an email, Jillian Moore said the website would include player protections such as age and residency verification, privacy controls, self-exclusion options, deposit limits, time displays, analytics on player activity and tips and links for information on responsible gambling.

Safer than offshore

"Atlantic Lottery's offering presents, what we understand to be, the lowest maximum bets of any regulated lottery in Canada, the lowest maximum bet by 60 per cent when compared to the lowest Canadian jurisdiction," said Moore.

"With respect to some unregulated/illegal sites, Atlantic Lottery's lowest maximum bet is, in some cases, 17 times lower."

But Elizabeth Stephen, the Halifax-based counsellor, said a key difference between the offshore sites and the ALC website is prominence. The ALC website already benefits from high traffic and advertising, she said. Stephen believes those facts, and the perceived legitimacy of the website being endorsed by the government, will lead even more people to begin playing the online casino games.

"Many, many Nova Scotians already use this site and now they're adding a very high-risk gambling product," she said in an interview.

Stephen said she sees a contradiction between the government having a moratorium on new physical video lottery terminals and supporting a new feature for the ALC website that essentially puts access to a VLT in everyone's hands.

"The timing of this is interesting," said Stephen. "I personally feel it's because they've lost revenue and they're looking for a new way to make up that revenue."

Elizabeth Stephen, a Halifax-based counsellor who specializes in treating people addicted to gambling, said the type of website Atlantic Lotto wants to launch in Nova Scotia will increase the harms inflicted on addicts. (Submitted photo)

Gambling is indeed a major revenue source for the province. From 2016-17 through to last year, the government has received a low of $138.9 million to a high of $145.7 million from gambling.

In recent years, however, the annual business plan for the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation has identified that both traditional ticketed lottery products and VLTs are mature products that need to adapt with a changing marketplace.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia's Finance Department noted that although 1,200 VLTs have been removed from operation since 2005, "the evolution of technology as it relates to online" gambling cannot be ignored.

"We know that Nova Scotians have access to more than 2,000 online gambling sites that are not regulated in Canada and do not have responsible gambling tools or protection for players," Tracy Barron said in an email.

"Through ALC, Nova Scotians will have a safer option, similar to online casinos offered by lottery corporations in other provinces, such as [British Columbia], Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick and soon P.E.I."

A call for a cap on playing time

Stephen said she hopes the government and ALC live up to their promises of protecting players, but she remains sceptical.

She pointed to the decision in 2014 to abandon the responsible-gambling My-Play system for VLTs, something that happened in part because the machines were bringing in less revenue. More recently, the province dissolved Gambling Awareness Nova Scotia, rolling its funding into the overall budget for mental health and addictions.

Rather than using measures that place all the onus on the player, Stephen said she'd like to see mandatory caps on how much anyone is able to play in a given day. 

"What we do know about the online experience alone is people lose track of time and stay on and are engrossed way longer than maybe they intend to," she said.

"And then you add gambling into that and the kind of gambling they're going to be adding online, we already know that these types of gambling machines are designed to keep people playing."