New P.E.I. online casino will draw new players, but could make addictions worse, expert says
'For some of them at least, their problem will become more entrenched and more serious'
An expert on gambling addiction told members of P.E.I.'s standing committee on health and social development Friday there is a "strong correlation" between online gambling and problem gambling.
Atlantic Lotto says it hopes to launch an online casino for Islanders in the first half of 2021, after the province gave its approval Dec. 22.
David Hodgins, a psychology professor from the University of Calgary, told committee members the province's proposed online casino will create new players, while potentially exacerbating the harms already felt by existing problem gamblers.
Finance Minister Darlene Compton says one of the reasons government finally agreed to host the site — ALC has been asking the province to launch one for at least a decade — was to draw Islanders away from illegal offshore sites into a safer, regulated environment.
Hodgins told the committee the province can expect to attract some but not all of those currently using offshore sites.
'May be safer'
"In places that have offered online gambling locally … it doesn't recapture the market of people who are gambling outside the jurisdiction completely," Hodgins said.
He said the site would also draw in new people who weren't gambling online before into a venue where he said players are four-times more likely to suffer from a gambling disorder compared to people who don't gamble online.
"It may be a safer source of gambling relative to some of the illegal sites," Hodgins said, but he said it would also bring "that risk, for the 950 people who currently have gambling problems on P.E.I., for some of them at least, their problem will become more entrenched and more serious."
The province's chief administrative officer for mental health and addictions, Lisa Thibeau, said "like anything, the more that things are available, of course it can potentially increase harms."
Thibeau said clients are often already gambling online through offshore sites. "Going online might seem more convenient, and they may not be aware that there might be, sort of those inherent, potential additional risks."
Big profits from problem gamblers
The most recent survey on problem gambling from Statistics Canada, conducted in 2018, found 0.6 per cent of Atlantic Canadians were problem gamblers — equating to roughly 950 Islanders.
But Hodgins and other speakers from the provincial Health Department said the effects of problem gambling also extend to family members.
Hodgins said problem gamblers account for a disproportionate amount of gambling profits, estimating that 30 to 50 per cent of the $12.2 million in profits the province received from VLTs in the last fiscal year came from those who were addicted.
Nora McCarthy-Joyce from the Department of Health and Wellness said people dealing with gambling addiction the province ends up seeing through its addictions program "may find themselves stealing from family members to support their addiction, or perhaps spending the family savings or retirement, or remortgaging a home."
"You're not only hurting yourself, but now certainly you've maybe changed the trajectory for your children or for your spouse."
'We have choices'
Minister of Housing and Social Development Brad Trivers, the only cabinet member on the committee, questioned whether online gambling might be safer than in-person gambling, and compared it to managing his children's video-game usage.
"They do a lot of online gaming themselves, and they have to make in-app purchases," he said.
"We have choices, right, where we can say, 'We're turning off the internet, you're not allowed to play,' or 'You are 11 years old, you don't have a credit card so if you want to make an in-app purchase you have to come to us and we'll approve it.'"
'Not spending enough'
In a written statement, a spokesperson for Atlantic Lotto told CBC News "Atlantic Lottery does not introduce games to Atlantic Canadians if it isn't possible to do it responsibly."
The corporation said its online casino games "involved years of planning and independent expert reviews."
ALC said two specific reviews — one from the Responsible Gambling Council, another from an organization called Gamres — "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."
Liberal committee member Heath MacDonald — a former finance minister who said he turned down ALC's proposal for an online casino when it crossed his desk — is calling for those reviews to be put forward.
He also suggested the province should have waited for a new study on the prevalence of gambling announced at Friday's meeting before deciding on whether to launch the new online casino.
Lotteries and casinos and gaming are a source of revenue but they also come with risks.— Peter Bevan-Baker
Ultimately he suggested the province commission a third-party evaluation from someone like Hodgins, saying Atlantic Lotto has too much of "an obvious vested interest" in the casino to rely on their own studies.
Hodgins characterized the roughly $200,000 that came out of P.E.I.'s $18.7 million in lottery revenues last year to pay for the province's responsible gaming strategy as "insufficient," a point taken up after the meeting by the leader of the Opposition.
"We're definitely not spending enough," said Peter Bevan-Baker. "Yes, lotteries and casinos and gaming are a source of revenue but they also come with risks — risks to individuals and families and communities. And there is a human cost to that."