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BC spends 0.51 per cent of gambling revenue on problem gambling treatment

The province's top doctor says British Columbia needs to spend more to battle problem gambling.

In his Oct. 16 report, "Lower the Stakes: A Public Health Approach to Gambling in British Columbia" provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall found only $5.6 million was spent on problem gambling treatment in 2011-2012 -- 0.51 per cent of government gambling revenue.

While spending on the adverse impacts of gambling lags in B.C., the province has become increasingly reliant on revenue.

Kendall's report found that 2.7 per cent of B.C.'s 2011-2012 overall revenue came from gambling, 0.4 per cent higher than the Canadian provincial average. In 2002-2003, gambling revenue exceeded alcohol and tobacco combined and, last year, B.C. Lottery Corporation registered a $1.128 billion profit on $2.275 billion gambled via lotteries and casinos.

With the benefits have come costs. The report estimated $230 million in excess health costs for problem gamblers in 2011, plus unquantified "negative personal consequences" including unemployment, crime, mental illness and marriage breakdown.

Kendall recommended spending at least 1.5 per cent on responsible gambling promotion and problem gambling treatment programs.

Current policies of gambling expansion are "taking more from a vulnerable population" and directing those funds into general revenue or provide products and services for those who are less vulnerable.

The report found that gambling activity decreased from 2002 to 2007 in all categories except cards, Internet gambling, and electronic gaming machines outside of casinos. But the types of gamblers "polarized" with an increase in both non-gamblers and problem gamblers; the percentage of problem gamblers more than doubled to 0.9 per cent or 31,000 people.

"While total revenue from gaming has increased in B.C., overall gambling participation in B.C. has decreased," said the report. "This suggests that more revenue is being drawn from fewer individual gamblers."

The 2007 B.C. Problem Gambling Prevalence Study estimated 70 per cent of British Columbians are non-problem or low-risk gamblers and 27 per cent don't gamble, but 3.7 per cent are moderate-risk and 0.9 per cent are problem gamblers. That 4.6 per cent translates to 170,000 people 18 and over in 2010-2011 -- more than three times the capacity of B.C. Place Stadium -- yet only 4,034 calls were logged to the Problem Gambling Help Line and only 2,034 people were admitted to treatment programs.

People aged 55 and up were more likely than other age groups to gamble weekly, but 38 per cent of people in B.C. gambled for money for the first time before they turned 19. Another 20 per cent gambled at age 20. Males out-gamble women 33 per cent to 26 per cent.

"Evidence also shows that certain forms of gambling (e.g., electronic gaming machines and Internet gambling) may be more conducive to problem gambling than other forms (e.g., bingo and lottery tickets), making expansion of some forms of gambling an added risk for the population," said the report.

Kendall's 17 recommendations also included the collection of better data to enable local governments to make evidence-based decisions on whether to host or expand casinos; a ban on automated teller machines and restricted or reduced access to alcohol in casinos; risk-avoidance curriculum in schools; and the linking of problem gambling screening and treatment to mental health and substance abuse treatment systems.

Kendall's 80-page report, a collaboration with the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. and University of Victoria, was four years in the making. Though submitted to Health Minister Terry Lake on Oct. 1, it is identified as the 2009 annual report but includes the most current data available, said a ministry representative.

Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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