No game, no pain

  • May 2, 2013

In the past two decades, government-sponsored gambling in Canada has more than quintupled. The average adult now spends about $515 annually on lotteries, slot machines, video display terminals, horse racing and casinos. Together, these dreamers and optimists drop almost $14 billion a year into government coffers.

What has developed is an unholy alliance between citizen and state in which more people are drawn to gambling as more governments become reliant on the easy money gaming generates. It is an interdependence that is inflicting physical and emotional harm on individuals and families while chipping at the moral underpinning of society.

Cardinal Thomas Collins underlined this extensive harm in a pastoral letter released last week. Several new casinos are being discussed for Ontario as part of a plan to increase gambling profits by $1.3 billion a year. A major new gambling hall seems destined for Toronto or surrounding area, which prompted the cardinal to reflect on the implications of setting up even more opportunities for wallet- emptying games like craps, blackjack and roulette.

The implications seem pretty clear. Government pit crews will rake in multi-millions each year to fund programs, offset budget deficits and pay down debt while leaving communities to cope with even greater levels of addiction, bankruptcy, crime, divorce and, occasionally, suicide. That’s the social cost of gambling. While most people may never develop a gambling problem, more than 350,000 people in Ontario alone are classified as problem gamblers. That includes 29,000 students.

These are the people alluded to by the cardinal when he spoke of grievous suffering he has witnessed because of gambling. By its nature, by its lure of instant riches, gambling often reels in those least able to afford it. Collins called this a “cruel illusion” and quite rightly said, “it is not wholesome for governments to promote it, especially through extensive advertising.”

Governments acknowledge that gambling can be harmful. Their response? Invest a tiny percent age of proceeds into programs to treat addiction and other problems. A farmer would call this shutting the barn door after the horse got out. The cardinal rebuts the government’s “dubious logic” by proposing it would make more sense to avoid the problem in the first place. Of course he’s right.

Government-sponsored betting is distasteful because it often empties the pockets of the young, the poor, the emotionally vulnerable, the people who can least afford to gamble. A prime responsibility of government is to alleviate suffering, not promote a lifestyle that causes pain. But when governments make gambling easy, widespread and supported by advertising that glamourizes lotteries and casinos, pain often ensues.

Sometimes individuals beat the odds. Overall, however, it’s a safe bet that when gambling is expanded all of society loses.

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