PEI

Allowing online casino with large bets 'simply wrong,' says P.E.I. Liberal MLA

Prince Edward Island's standing committee on health and social development will investigate the mental health implications from a new online casino coming from Atlantic Lotto.

Legislature standing committee to look at implications of new Atlantic Lotto casino for P.E.I. players

Liberal finance critic and former P.E.I. finance minister Heath MacDonald says a new online high-bet casino is a bad idea. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Prince Edward Island's standing committee on health and social development will investigate the mental health implications from a new online casino coming from Atlantic Lotto.

The news came Tuesday from the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, which says it is preparing to expand a new online casino to allow play by residents of P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, after quietly launching a site New Brunswickers could access in August 2020.

The P.E.I. cabinet approved participation in the online casino on Dec. 22. In a statement, the provincial Department of Finance said its goal was to ensure residents "play in a safe and regulated environment."

"The timing is so wrong" for an online casino that allows large bets, said Liberal MLA Heath MacDonald, who asked the standing committee to make this a priority.

"We've just lived through nine months of a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental illness, and the numbers are increasing daily," MacDonald said in an interview with CBC News. "And I think addictions was a topic of many discussions for many people — all Islanders, many people, many families.

"One of the addictions we sometimes tend to forget is gambling addiction." 

'It's not very pretty'

Wednesday, the committee voted unanimously to call witnesses to appear as soon as possible, including the provincial addictions co-ordinator and a researcher from UPEI, along with someone from public health.

'We really have to take a serious look at what it can do to individuals and their families,' says MacDonald of government-sanctioned online gambling. (CBC)

The website currently allows New Brunswick residents to gamble up to $500 on a hand of blackjack, or up to $100 on a single pull of a virtual slot machine, all from the privacy of their own homes. That's 40 times more than the legal limit allowed for physical video lottery terminals in that province.  

For years, Atlantic Lotto had been pitching the idea of an online casino to its shareholders — the four provincial governments in Atlantic Canada. 

After years of being turned down, Atlantic Lotto said the coronavirus pandemic proved to be the right time to launch its site.  

According to ALC, about $100 million leaves the Atlantic region each year through gambling on offshore websites. The pandemic is also expected to take a big bite out of traditional lottery revenues.

"To make a decision to bring forth this kind of alternative gambling is simply wrong, and government should look at reversing its decision," MacDonald said. 

He hopes testimony from experts at the committee will help lead the government to agree with him, he said. 

"I think we really have to take a serious look at what it can do to individuals and their families," MacDonald said. "It's not very pretty and it's not pleasant." 

MacDonald noted he "didn't want to have any part of it" when a similar proposal was pitched to government when he was P.E.I.'s finance minister just a couple of years ago.  

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Kerry Campbell

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