Casinos could take action against problem gambling—but do they have too much to lose?
With all the talk of a Toronto casino—whether to have one, where to put it, how much it would cost, how much revenue it would generate, and what its effect on the city would be—Torontoist sat down with Ann, a recovering compulsive gambler. She told us how she went from bingo to Facebook games to slot machines, what pushed her over the edge into full-fledged addiction, and what she had to do to stop. As we found out, Ann’s casino roller coaster ride was brief but devastating, plunging her $40,000 into debt before she finally sought counselling, put herself on the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG)’s self-exclusion list, and joined a problem gamblers’ peer support group.
When we asked her what casinos could do to mitigate problem gambling or help keep addicts from betting beyond their means, she laughed. “Why should they? They’re in the business of making money, not helping people. Do fast food places have dietitians standing at their counters warning you about what’s in your burger?” Despite her skepticism, we talked through a number of possible actions that casinos could take to reduce gambling addiction, including some that have been implemented in other places where problem gambling has become a significant issue. Ann’s view: such measures could probably help, but “I wouldn’t bet on them ever being implemented. And apparently I’ll bet on anything.”
Encourage more social and casual play
Casinos should create smaller lounge-like rooms with more interaction among players to encourage a younger crowd to visit, while disrupting the “zone” that compulsive gamblers try to sustain as part of their addiction. They should eliminate snack and drink service at tables and machines, forcing players to take periodic breaks. And they should institute brief cool-down periods for machines after several hours of continuous play.
Treat big wins differently
Currently, big slot machine winners remain on the floor next to their winning machines, ringing and flashing and wailing, for over an hour while the win is certified. This draws an enormous amount of attention and makes problem gamblers even more hungry to win. Casinos should remove big winners from the floor to a private waiting area and silence their machines promptly; provide mandatory on-site counseling for wins greater than $10,000; pay out large jackpots by cheque instead of cash so that they cannot be immediately spent on the premises; place a $5,000 cap on single-machine wins to lower the enticement for compulsive gamblers; enforce a maximum number of plays per day, or a maximum dollar amount, particularly for any individual playing progressive slots.
Eliminate deceptive practices
As the Gambling Research Lab at the University of Waterloo notes, Ontario approves multiple identical-looking versions of the same game with payback percentages varying from 85 to 98 per cent. Ontario regulations allow manufacturers to create “near misses” such as two jackpot symbols on the payline and another just above the payline. And, on newer touch-screen video slot machines with multiple-line wagers, approximately 60 per cent of the “winning” spins result in “wins” that are less than the initial wager, triggering winning sounds and winning graphics but resulting in a loss for the player. These blatantly unfair tactics have a much greater impact on problem gamblers than on casual gamblers, and should be outlawed.
Ensure frequent players can afford their losses
To guarantee that all gamblers play within their means, set mandatory bank transfer limits for individual player cards. (Norwegian law, for example, limits bank transfers to $70 per day or $385 per month from an individual’s bank account to their gambling card.) Casinos should run credit and financial checks on players eligible for rewards and VIP programs, and disqualify those who cannot realistically afford the playing level they’ve achieved. And OLG should reach out to problem gamblers identified through this process, and refer them to counseling.
Locate casinos away from residential and heavily populated areas
When Ann was first struggling to break free from her gambling addiction, she would often get into her car, drive up her street and turn onto the highway, then spend the next 20 or 30 kilometres arguing with herself before successfully forcing herself to turn around and head back home. “Surfing the urge” is what Ann called it: distracting, delaying, impeding herself when the impulse to gamble overtook her. What would have happened if the casino had been downtown across from her office? “The only way I could get away was to stay away. You can’t do that if it’s across the street. I would have been there all the time. Lunch hours, after work. Before work. Instead of work. I would not have been able to stop myself.”
Increase funding and promotion for addiction and counseling resources
Responsible Gaming Resource Centres are located on-site in casinos across Ontario, and provide players with information on safer gambling practices as well as assistance and local referrals for help with gambling-related problems. However, the assistance they provide is limited, given that their primary role is to connect problem gamblers with local community services. Meanwhile, addiction and counseling agencies throughout the province are struggling with increased client loads and funding challenges. If the Ontario government wants to bolster its budget with revenues from new casino projects, and casinos want to earn their money off the backs of problem gamblers, then they must be willing to pay the price to assist their most vulnerable players.