Counsellor, addict worry launch of online gambling in Ontario may lead to more addiction
'Online it just made it so much more accessible and easy for me to play,' says Chris Fogolin
For the last 16 years Chris Fogolin's life has been consumed by his addiction to illegal online sports betting, which prompted him to lose family relationships, a few million dollars and at one point his home.
The 42-year-old construction worker is now enrolled in Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare's intensive gambling addiction help program. As a lifelong sports guy, Fogolin recalls how easy it was to place a sports bet, which he did once while waiting for a bus.
"It got so bad that instead of buying a loaf of bread to make a sandwich, I would place a sports bet, hoping that by chance I would win and I would have triple the money I had started with," said Fogolin.
Next month iGaming will launch, which is a subsidiary of the the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), overseen by the Ontario Government. It's being marketed as a legal online gambling option that they say ensures "safer play."
Nothing else could even come close to my next bet, that's how obsessive it was for me- Chris Fogolin
But when Fogolin thinks back to the convenience and easy access to online gambling at his fingertips, he worries the introduction of iGaming in Ontario may lead others down the same path.
"This disease has brought me down to the depths of hell, basically," said Fogolin.
His gambling addiction became so intense Fogolin found himself studying everything about the sports game he was betting on — weather, playing conditions and if a quarterback is better during the day or at night.
It started out small, where Fogolin would play only on weekends or during major sporting events. Eventually, he began betting upwards of 20 times a day, and even on sports he wasn't familiar with such as table tennis.
"I would put everyone and everything in my life second to my gambling — my mother, my father, my brother, my girlfriend. Nothing else could even come close to my next bet, that's how obsessive it was for me," said Fogolin.
At one point, he found himself sleeping on a park bench after gambling away his rent money. It happened during the pandemic when homeless shelters were full and there was nowhere else for him to go.
Fogolin's rock bottom, he said, was getting criminally charged with theft and fraud in relation to his gambling addiction.
"Online it just made it so much more accessible and easy for me to play," he said.
"They're very, very surprised how seductive online play is and how quickly they lose their money and how quickly they get sucked into the game."- Diana Gabriele, problem gambling counsellor at HDGH
The Ontario government is launching its new online gambling service April 4. It allows companies to operate gaming websites of their own on behalf of Ontario, if they've signed an agreement.
CBC News asked the provincial government if it's concerned about whether iGaming could have an effect on gambling addiction rates.
The Ministry of Finance tells CBC News operators offering gambling services will be required to abide by "responsible gambling requirements and policies."
"It is important to note that a competitive iGaming market will provide a safer alternative to the unregulated, grey market websites that currently exist — and which may lack proper consumer protections or responsible gaming measures," said Scott Blodgett, spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance.
But one problem gambling counsellor predicts the arrival of this government-endorsed online gambling will ultimately lead to more addictions.
"It's highly concerning," said Diana Gabriele, a Canadian-certified problem gambling counsellor at Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare. "It's highly probable, in my opinion, that it would get worse."
She hopes to see built-in tools to set limits on both money and time spent on gambling.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in the last few years, Gabriele said online gambling has become "highly problematic" because casinos have been closed or faced restrictions.
"They're very, very surprised how seductive online play is and how quickly they lose their money and how quickly they get sucked into the game," she said.
One obvious red flag that someone may be experiencing a gambling addiction is when they use money designated for other purposes, such as rent or savings accounts, Gabriele said.
It took Fologin 16 years to recognize that warning sign for himself, prompting him to reach out for help.
After spiralling down a dark hole of illegal gambling, drugs, alcohol, ruined relationships and a few million dollars in lost money, Fologin finishes his three-week addiction program this week.
It's been about a month since he last bet on a sporting event.
Treatment has allowed him to better understand why he turned to gambling and learn tools to cope in the event he has an urge to do it again.
"I'm feeling hopeful," he said. "There's only one way but up for me now. I'm looking forward to living life on a daily basis without gambling."
Once he checks out of the gambling addiction program, Fologin said he's not on his own. His schedule is filled with "self-help meetings" at least three times a week and ongoing support from addiction counsellors.
But he worries the government will give people "legal access to do what I've done for over a decade and some of these people may get to the point where I got to."
"I don't wish that upon my worst enemy," Fologin said.
Gambling addiction resources
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing signs of a gambling addiction, there are resources available to help.
- Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare's Centre for Problem Gambling and Digital Dependency: 519-254-2112
- Ontario Problem Gambling Helpline: 1-888-230-3505
- This story has been updated to clarify that iGaming is a subsidiary of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.Mar 07, 2022 1:39 PM ET