The Current

'Get those machines out of the clubs': N.L. residents still grappling with 'addictive' video lottery terminals

A class-action lawsuit in Newfoundland and Labrador is putting a new spotlight on an old problem: addiction to video lottery terminals. We hear from people fighting to have these VLTs removed from bars, and those who say the economic benefits outweigh the human cost.

A class-action lawsuit about gambling machines includes as many as 30,000 people

Nicole Fowler is a recovering VLT addict who paid a heavy price. She says she still feels the urge to play the gambling machines. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)
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In the depths of her addiction, Nicole Fowler would drop her kids off at school, and then sit outside bars, waiting for them to open.

But it wasn't to get a drink — she was addicted to gambling on video lottery terminals (VLTs).

"I don't think I'll ever live a day without thinking about the machines, or the lights, or the flashes, or the sounds, or just the feeling of sitting in front of it and being numb," said Fowler, from St. John's, N.L.

"There's days I wish I could do it, but I know I can't," she told The Current.

Fowler sought treatment and hasn't played on VLTs in two years, but her addiction led to bankruptcy and the end of her marriage. At one point, sheriffs came into her pizza business during the lunchtime rush, ordering her to close over unpaid bills.

Nicole Fowler describes how gambling on VLTs makes her feel, even now as a recovering addict. 0:45
 

In Newfoundland and Labrador, VLTs are at the centre of a class-action lawsuit against the Atlantic Lottery Corporation (ALC), the company which oversees gambling and gaming in the four Maritime provinces.

The lawsuit was filed by two lead plaintiffs — Doug Babstock and Fred Small — in 2012, and certified as a class action in early 2017. Their statement of claim says that "VLTs are inherently deceptive, inherently addictive and inherently dangerous when used as intended."

They argue that the machines do not fit the guidelines for legal slot machines, fair games of chance or lottery schemes as set out by the Criminal Code of Canada.

None of the allegations has been proven in court.

The statement of claim argues that 'VLTs are inherently deceptive, inherently addictive and inherently dangerous when used as intended.' (Mike Groll/Associated Press)

If successful, similar cases could be taken elsewhere in the country.

The ALC argued to have the lawsuit dismissed by the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal, but lost their case in Dec., 2018. The corporation has now asked for the case to be thrown out by the Supreme Court of Canada, which will decide whether it will hear the case in the coming months.  

The lawsuit — which includes as many as 30,000 people who have used the games any time after April 2006 — is seeking damages equal to revenue from VLTs in that time period, which the plaintiffs claim was gained unlawfully.

Last year, the ALC took in close to half a billion dollars in revenue from the machines.

The Current requested an interview with ALC head Brent Scrimshaw, but he was not available. 

Doug Babstock, seen with his wife Peggy, is one of the lead plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit against the VLTs. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

Babstock, a retiree from Mount Pearl, N.L., says he'd love to get his money back, but that's not his priority.

"If they came to me right now and offered me [the] exact amount of money that I lost, I would say, 'No, I'm sorry. The main thing is get those machines out of the clubs, so that people are not destroying their lives.'"

He added that VLTs are "destroying people's lives, and I'm really disappointed that the government hasn't stepped up, and done something to stop this."

Newfoundland and Labrador's Premier Dwight Ball, Finance Minister Tom Osborne, and Health Minister John Haggie were not available for an interview. 

With an election date being decided soon, Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie says if he becomes premier, VLTs would not be allowed "until they're safe."

"Everybody, I think, knows somebody in their family or circle of friends who have been affected adversely by VLTs," said Crosbie, the original lawyer behind the class-action against ALC.

Money from VLTs 'helps the Newfoundlanders'

But not everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador agrees that the machines are a problem.

"Everybody gets addicted to something. There's always a small percentage of society that get addicted," said Marcel Etheridge, who owns The Captain's Quarters, a bar in St. John's.

"We live in a free society ...  do we want to control what people do in life?" he said.

People should be free to make their own choices, argued Marcel Etheridge, who owns The Captain's Quarters, a bar in St. John's, N.L. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

He argued that removing the machines from bars and restaurants would just mean that people go to gamble elsewhere, including on online platforms that may not be based in Canada.

He added there are thousands of people employed in bars and restaurants across the province.

"Now, you want to fool with that?"

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Mary-Catherine.

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