Suicides linked to gambling prompt N.S. gaming agency to move on VLTs
May 12, 2004
by Murray Brewster

HALIFAX (CP) - Evidence that links suicide to problem gambling has the head of Nova Scotia's gaming corporation taking direct aim at video lottery terminals.

Marie Mullally told a legislature committee Wednesday that provincial statistics show that 10 out of 159 confirmed suicides between January 2001 and September 2002 were linked to gambling addiction. The information comes from the chief medical examiner's office, which adopted a new interrogation system in 2001, requiring investigators to ask relatives of every suicide victim whether gambling played a role in the death.

"I think it's devastating information," Mullally said after the meeting. "We are absolutely concerned with that kind of information."

Mullally said the Nova Scotia Gaming Corp., which manages provincial gambling revenues, became concerned about a year ago that VLT addiction had become a growing problem.

"The VLT product, like any product, has the potential to be misused," she said. "The public has spoken about their concerns with problem gambling. We want to address that. We want people's input."

Mullally didn't say what changes the agency will propose to the province that operates VLTs with the Atlantic Lottery Corp.

But New Democrat Jerry Pye said he's surprised at how long it has taken the agency to deal with a problem that has been raised repeatedly by the families torn apart by addictive gamblers.

Last year, new statistics on gambling and suicide collected by medical examiners in Nova Scotia and Alberta far surpassed those in Quebec, which was considered to have the highest rate of suicides linked to gambling in Canada.

Gambling is a trend that's exploding throughout the country, where an estimated 19 million adults wagered $11.3 billion in 2002 on everything from VLTs and lottery tickets to bingo and casino games. That's a four-fold jump from $2.7 billion spent 10 years ago when government coffers relied much less on gambling.

Nova Scotia's Conservative government is expecting to collect $169 million this year from all forms of gambling, including lottery tickets and its 3,800 VLTs.

A study done for the province in the 1990s found there were 6,400 problem gamblers in the province and they dropped as much as $90 million into the video machines.

Opposition parties have been pushing for restrictions on VLT use. Liberal finance critic Diana Whalen said other jurisdictions have installed devices that shut down VLTs after 10 minutes of play, or only allow them to operate on weekends.

"I think they're good ideas," she said. "That would make it more of a social or entertaining thing rather than something people are relying on all day, every day. That's where the addicts are."

Other provinces are also taking action. Last week, Quebec's smallest neighbourhood bars learned they will lose their video lottery terminals in an effort to curb problem gambling.

Loto-Quebec announced plans to reduce the number of bars with VLT devices by 31 per cent over three years.