VICTORIA - The B.C. government's push to create more losers is going well.
Gambling losers, that is.
The government has set out to increase both the number of gamblers, and their individual losses.
The numbers are just in on the latest tactic, locating addictive slot machines in community bingo halls around the province.
It's working. The BC Lottery Corp. reports that in the first four months after slots appeared in the Williams Lake bingo hall, people lost $2.4 million to the machines. Down in Kelowna, people lost $400,000 in three weeks after slots hit the bingo hall - $20,000 a day, or a forecast $7 million this year.
The lottery corporation is keen on slots in bingo halls. Slots and VLTs- the crack cocaine of gambling - are the same machines. The difference in location. And bingo halls, with liquor licences and restaurants, are a way to get the machines into more communities.
The local governments are wooed by a lottery corporation sales effort, and the promise of 10 per cent of the losses. And they're reminded that if they say no, BC Lotteries might put the slots in the next town down the road.
The communities are making the leap with little information on the social and economic damage. That $2.4 million that people lost in Williams Lake is money that they might have spent on local services and entertainment (or in some cases to buy groceries for their families). That economic benefit is gone, because the mini-casino business generates few jobs and sends most of the money down to Victoria.
Communities are left with the social costs - the lost jobs, broken families, crime. ("The people it hurts most are the ones we have a responsibility to protect, such as the poor, women and abused families," said Kamloops MLA Kevin Krueger in opposition. He's been quiet on the plan to put slots in small communities; the bingo hall in Kamloops added 50 slot machines in March.)
The public knows the risks. The government has just released a "baseline study" to begin tracking the effects of gambling in the Lower Mainland. (A little late, you might say.)
It surveyed residents, and found 55 per cent of people believed the harm from gambling outweighs any benefits; only 18 per cent said the benefits were worth the costs.
But governments are hooked, consciously choosing to trade a certain number of casualties for more money.
The B.C. government, through the lottery corporation, has a plan to lure more people into gambling. In 2003, 58 per cent of British Columbians gambled through the corporation. The government plans to recruit enough new gamblers to push that to 67 per cent 2007. That means about 360,000 more people lured into gambling, by ad campaigns, increasingly accessible slots and now Internet betting.
Lots of them will just lose a few dollars. But a new Canada West Foundation study found that 6.9 per cent of British Columbians are either problem gamblers, or at risk. That means that the government's gambling recruitment efforts could spell disaster for some 25,000 families. (The study also found that, despite increased funding , only Newfoundland spends less per capita on problem gambling treatment and prevention.)
All this will be damaging to individuals, and communities. That's why Campbell ran in 2001 on a promise to "stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families."
But the money counts more. So the government has pushed the number and availability of slots. There were 2,400 when the Liberals were elected, now there are 6,600. There were 10 locations with the machines. Now there are 21, with another half-dozen on their way this year.
It's allowed gambling on the Internet, and alcohol and ATMs in casinos and bingo halls.
All this is working. The government is on track to almost double its take to more than $1 billion a year.
The damaged and lost lives are just the price it has chosen to pay.
Footnote: B.C. has avoided the destructive trap of allowing VLTs, called the crack cocaine of gambling. But the only difference between a slot machine and a VLT is location - VLTs are slots in bars or stores. The machines are designed to be addictive, with those bells and lights and occasional payouts all aimed at keeping gamblers on their stools.