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Online gambling linked to risky behaviour, more harms, ALC-commissioned reports say

Online gambling is associated with higher levels of risky gambling behaviour and harm, according to a report commissioned by the Atlantic Lottery Corporation and obtained by CBC News following a freedom of information request.

Atlantic Lotto says it’s providing a safer place to bet: 'Our citizens are already playing'

A 2018 screen shot shows an online gaming site. A year later, a consultant was telling Atlantic Lottery Corporation such sites posed additional addictions issues related to the 'easy and constant physical access' from a person’s home to an online casino that never closes. (CBC)

Online gambling is associated with higher levels of risky gambling behaviour and harm, according to a report commissioned by the Atlantic Lottery Corporation and obtained by CBC News following a freedom of information request. 

However, says the report from the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC), an Ontario-based organization that offers certification for both online and bricks-and-mortar casinos, "the causal link between online gambling and gambling problems is not clearly established."

The RGC report is one of two commissioned by Atlantic Lotto as part of what the corporation has described as "years of planning and independent expert reviews" leading to the development of its suite of iCasino games.

For a decade ,Atlantic Lotto pitched the idea of a regional online casino to its four shareholder provinces with no uptake. Last year, New Brunswick finally went all-in, allowing ALC to quietly launch a suite of new games for New Brunswick residents in August.

Nova Scotia and P.E.I. are preparing to follow suit.

Reports not previously made public

Neither of the two reports has previously been made public. The corporation has summarized their conclusions by saying they "found no substantial evidence that the introduction of online casino gambling would have a measurable impact on vulnerable players, nor that problem gambling has become more prevalent in the other Canadian jurisdictions where online casino games are already available."

One of the two reports, from gambling consultant Richard Wood, did arrive at those conclusions, while also acknowledging "tentative evidence that online casino games can be problematic for at-risk players."

However, the RGC report outlined a number of specific risk factors it said were "unique" to online gambling and provided recommendations to mitigate those risk factors — some of which ALC has yet to implement.

Among the risk factors cited by RGC is the "easy and constant physical access" from a person's home to an online casino that never closes, along with "the ability to be socially isolated," without the distractions and social interactions in a physical casino that might encourage a person to take a break from play. 

That report was provided to ALC in July of 2019.

Less than a year later, in April of 2020 as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were underway, Atlantic Lotto pitched its four shareholder provinces once again on the iCasino idea, this time citing the fact people were now stuck at home, turning to online gambling in unprecedented numbers. 

ALC characterized that situation as an "opportunity" for the provinces to bring in millions in additional revenues.

'I don’t think there’s any amount of mental health supports are going to address that, when people are alone gambling money away,' says Liberal MLA Robert Henderson. (Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

"They totally disregarded some of those potential risks," said P.E.I. Liberal MLA Robert Henderson. 

"The challenges that puts on people in an isolated situation … I don't think there's any amount of mental health supports are going to address that, when people are alone gambling money away."

Impact of credit card use flagged

Another risk factor cited in the RGC report is that online gambling relies on credit cards or other digital forms of currency, which can lead to the money spent by players to become "digitally abstracted from its value."

The report identifies two groups, young adults and males, which it says are at high risk from all forms of gambling, including online. It says online gambling also increases potential harms from substance use and that "pre-existing mental health issues, such as mood disorders, can also have a co-morbid effect with online gambling harm."

Our perspective on this is that the most irresponsible thing to do is nothing while these offshore illegal operators are taking money from Atlantic Canadians.- Patrick Daigle

The message from Atlantic Lotto has been that it wants to repatriate Atlantic Canadians who've been spending an estimated $100 million per year gambling on offshore sites.

"Our perspective on this is that the most irresponsible thing to do is nothing while these offshore illegal operators are taking money from Atlantic Canadians," said Atlantic Lotto's president and interim CEO Patrick Daigle. 

"The fact of the matter is, our citizens are already playing. And frankly, for the well-being of Atlantic Canadians, including Islanders, we just want to provide a safe and regulated alternative."

Some measures to reduce risk taken

ALC has taken steps to reduce risks, following recommendations put forward in the two reports:

  • All staff have received responsible gambling training.
  • Its website features a prominently displayed self-exclusion option allowing players to exclude themselves from the site for a period ranging from six months to three years.
  • Players can set daily time and spending limits, and a pop-up window appears every 60 minutes to remind players they're logged in.

But ALC has yet to implement all the recommendations to reduce the risks from online gambling.

A key recommendation in the RGC report is that ALC develop a "comprehensive harm minimization strategy," and make a plain-language version of that available to the public.

'Our citizens are already playing,' says Atlantic Lotto’s president and interim CEO Patrick Daigle. 'And frankly, for the well-being of Atlantic Canadians, including Islanders, we just want to provide a safe and regulated alternative.' (Alantic Lottery Corporation)

Even though New Brunswick's new games launched last year, Daigle said ALC is still developing that strategy, which is also meant to guide the corporation in how it markets its online games.

Recent marketing campaigns offering $20 in credits to gamble online have drawn criticism in Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

"That strategy is underway," said Daigle. "It's really a social responsibility strategy, and one of the elements in that strategy is encouraging healthy play. We simply don't want unhealthy play. We want our players to play responsibly."

Daigle said the marketing campaigns in question were assessed and approved using ALC's existing social responsibility framework.

Province has pledged to earmark proceeds 

This week, after the issue of the online casino was brought up every day in the P.E.I. legislature, Finance Minister Darlene Compton said all profits from the new enterprise would be applied toward mental health and addictions programs, though she didn't specify whether spending on those programs would actually increase.

P.E.I. Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker compared that to pouring gasoline on a fire, then providing "a little bit more resources for the firefighters to come put that fire out."

He said peer-reviewed studies of online gambling — which these ALC reports are not — are more cautionary in tone and "suggest that we need to be extremely careful when we do this."

The Green leader added: "I would love to see government reverse its decision on this."

More from CBC P.E.I. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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