A closer look at B.C.´s online gambling ambitions

News on 14 Sep 2009

One of the more interesting articles over the weekend was a piece authored by Brian Hutchinson writing in the Canadian publication The National Post on the online gambling ambitions of the British Columbia Lottery Corporation.
Hutchinson prefaces his story with the comment that the BCLC is no stranger to massive profits, pointing out that last year saw over a billion in profits, the 24th consecutive year of profit for the organisation.
But management was disappointed – the results fells some $19 million short of what they were expecting.
“They decided something new was required to keep the win streak alive,” writes Hutchinson. “More games. A different venue. An appeal to younger players. The bureaucrats set to work.”
The article explains that the new project involved boosting allowable deposits into gambling accounts….and launching Internet casino-style betting on games such as blackjack, roulette and poker, designed for computers and portable devices.
Hutchinson looks at the conservative history of BC provincial authorities, remarking that the latest goals would have unimaginable even a decade ago, when Premier Gordon Campbell was adamant that: “There will be no further expansion of gambling. We’ll try to reduce it.”
But once in power, Premier Campbell embarked on the biggest, most aggressive land gambling expansion program ever seen in Canada, claims Hutchinson. “Now there are signs that traditional gambling markets in B.C. may have reached the saturation point.”
“New casinos still draw crowds, but overall participation rates have started to fall. Lottery games are considered old hat. Young gamblers especially don’t seem enthralled,” he adds.
Hutchinson notes that with the more generous limits on deposits, BCLC players can now build up to $520 000 in their gambling accounts in one year, and will soon be able to wager the entire sum on one virtual poker hand, one virtual spin of the wheel.
“No other jurisdiction in Canada or the United States offers online casino-style games,” he writes before outlining the often confusing situation in the United States and the status quo in Canada, where only the Atlantic provinces offer online sports betting and lottery draws, along with B.C.
Officially, no other provinces are contemplating the introduction of Internet gambling, he informs.
Hutchinson spoke to John Kennedy Fitzgerald, a Toronto lawyer and CEO of the Interactive Gaming Council, an online gambling trade association based in Vancouver.
Fitzgerald told him that mention of Internet gambling generally sets off alarms because it is perceived as gambling expansion. “But I don’t think it’s an expansion at all. I think it’s just recognizing what already exists, and making a decision to regulate it,” he opined, adding that BC “….might as well jump in and grab some of the business being conducted illegally.”
And apparently the IGC has discussed online gambling legalisation with the BC government. Fitzgerald told Hutchinson that such talks were held with “a very open B.C. government” prior to its decision to expand Internet gambling.
“B.C.’s move is fantastic … a wonderful step,” he adds. However, he’d like the province to go even further and open the industry to everyone, opening the market up to free competition and the benefits that such an approach gives to players..
Hutchinson says that the head of the BCLC has been quoted in newspapers as saying: “Gaming online is growing at a rate of 20 percent a year. Globally, the industry is worth a staggering $12-billion a year. Simply put, if British Columbians wish to gamble online, we’d like them to do it as customers of BCLC.”
Playing Devil’s Advocate, Hutchinson interviewed experts with opposing views, including Robert Wood, an associate professor in the University of Lethbridge’s department of sociology, who claims that stepping into the Web gambling game is “bad news for Canadians. It’s opening Pandora’s box.”
Wood is especially concerned about the potential impact of Internet gambling on youth. “This could create a whole new generation of gamblers,” he says.
“There are young people who won’t set foot inside a stinky casino. Hand them an iPhone and they may find their way to a government gambling site, online. They’ll be able to sign in and gamble anywhere…. Do we want that? Do we want governments in Canada to be promoting this? Is there not a moral question here?”
Wood points to studies and surveys used in a report he co-authored this year, called Internet Gambling: Prevalence, Patterns, Problems, and Policy Options. And he makes some very contentious claims regarding online gambling:
“The prevalence of problem gambling is three to four times higher in Internet gamblers compared to non-Internet gamblers,” reads his report. “Having problems with gambling is one of the features that best predicts someone is an Internet gambler.”
The report also notes “a significant proportion of online gambling revenue comes from problem gamblers (41.3 percent in Canada, 27 percent internationally).”
Canadian Internet gamblers have “relatively high, past month rates of substance abuse (23.3% for illicit drugs).” Use of illicit drugs “is statistically associated with Internet gambling,” the report notes.
Hutchinson taxed the BCLC’s Kevin Gass with Wood’s claims, but these were news to the lottery official, who said he had not seen the Lethbridge study and wouldn’t comment on it, other than to say “…there is a multitude of definitions [regarding the term] ‘problem gambling.’ ” He insisted that everything the BCLC does is socially responsible.
Gass went on to expand on porblem gambling precautions, saying that counselling is available. The government provides this help through its gaming policy and enforcement branch. Funding for the branch’s “responsible gambling strategy” was increased two years ago, to $7-million. Yet the branch did not spend all of its $7-million allotment, in fact, it ended the year with a $1.6-million surplus.

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