The latest move to study (and perhaps eventually reduce) problem gambling is welcome news, but don’t think for a minute it’s a sign the provincial government is any less voracious when it comes to gobbling up money from gamblers.
Last week saw the establishment of the new Centre for Gambling Research at the University of b.C. a UbC news release said the centre’s key goals are "probing the psychology of gambling, helping problem gamblers and enhancing gaming policy."
There will be a "casino lab" created in the centre, which sounds nifty. It will have slot machines and other games, and it will measure things like heart rates and brain responses of gamblers.
The whole thing is being paid for by a $2-million grant from the b.C. government and the b.C. Lottery Corporation. this is all well and good.
But if you think that grant is "guilt" money, you would be correct.
The B.C. government, like every other provincial government (if not governments pretty much everywhere), long ago became addicted to revenues flowing its way from the gambling industry.
It wasn’t always like this of course. For decades if a person wanted to gamble legally (I stress that word) in this province, such activities were basically confined to horse racing, the crown and anchor wheel on the carnival midway (I used to operate one, by the way) and perhaps an annual Grey Cup pool or the old Irish Hospital Sweepstakes horse race.
That changed in the mid-1970s, when a national lottery was established to help pay for Montreal’s Olympic Games in 1976. the Olympics came and went, but the lottery stayed.
Then, in 1985, provinces were given control of gambling. One can just imagine provincial financial ministers of the day salivating at the prospect of a whole new revenue stream being opened up to them.
And open it up it did, as provincial lotteries became bigger and bigger. eventually, casinos were brought into being, and with them the biggest cash cow of all: slot machines and other electronic game machines.
By 2002, revenues for the b.C. government broke through the $500 million level. Since then, they have doubled to almost $1.2 billion expecting to come in this year.
That money is distributed, in part, to nonprofit arts, culture and sports groups (like your local Little League baseball team) and to municipalities that host casinos (which helps explain the often muted opposition to gaming expansion by municipalities). but the vast majority (almost $900 million) goes to the government’s general revenue fund.
The government’s direct share of the gambling pie is enough to fund, to pick just one area, what the government spends on all social services in an entire year. this isn’t chump change we’re talking about folks, which is why any notion that the government – any government – is going to spend gobs of cash treating problem gamblers has dim prospects of becoming reality.
There are valid arguments to curtail a casino’s operating hours, reduce the number of slot machines (which are particularly insidious when it comes to attracting problem gamblers) and any number of other measures aimed at making gambling a bit harder to access.
But the fact is, even with that $2 million grant for UbC, the money spent annually on problem gambling is less than one per cent of the profits government earn on that activity.
And as long as governments refuse to even have a dialogue about revisiting our tax system, they will continue to look greedily at any prospective revenues that allow them to meet ever-rising public expectations for government services, whether they are for health care, education, social services, or whatever.
So until a political party stakes out new turf, and puts things like an income tax hike, a substantial corporate tax increase, or a big reduction in spending, revenue generators like the gambling industry will continue to be an indispensible part of the social fabric, as distasteful as many people find that.
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall, in his groundbreaking report on gambling released last year, has estimated there are about 31,000 people struggling, at various degrees, with problem gambling in this province.
But even with laudable measures being taken, such as establishing the Centre for Gambling Research at UbC, I’m afraid many of those people will end being collateral damage resulting from the government’s ceaseless efforts to find money to pay for the things that everyone wants – but don’t really want to pay any more for them.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.