An explosion in Internet and electronic gambling and a doubling in the number of problem gamblers will affect Nanaimo on a par with the rest of B.C., local experts say.
The province now gets $2.1 billion a year in revenues from gambling, of which 56 per cent is from video lottery terminals, according to a report from Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer.
A rise of electronic gambling over the past decade coincides with more people who fit the description of problem gamblers - an estimated 31,000, up from 13,000.
That puts a further tax on resources, a concern to health officials, since spending on prevention and treatment for gambling addictions has not followed that rising curve.
"I think we can assume there is a cost," said Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health's medical health officer, Central Island region. "The average problem gambler costs the health-care system $9,000, compared to $2,000 a year."
If one per cent of the adult population has a gambling problem, that's a considerable number in the greater Nanaimo region.
"That's, let's say 500 to 1,000 people whose health care needs will be higher."
The number of electronic gaming machines, such as video lottery terminals and slot machines per 100,000 British
Columbians has risen 210 per cent in the last decade, while use of lottery tickets, casinos and bingo halls declined, Kendall said.
The government's PlayNow website now meets a growing demand for online gambling, too. Revenues rise, despite fewer British Columbians gambling.
For problem gamblers, electronic gaming machines are the most difficult to resist.
"It's like saying: 'Is there a stronger, more powerful form of heroin?'" said Lorne Hildebrand, executive director of Nanaimo's Edgewood Addictions Treatment Centre. "For adults with an addition, (machines) fulfill all the requirements of getting addicted, above card games and everything else."
Still, he said getting rid of the machines won't solve the problem.
"Problem gamblers are addicts, and theoretically they will show up with other addictions."
Hildebrand says more resources are needed to treat the addiction.
Kendall made 17 recommendations in his report, including better training, prevention, screening and assessment of gambling addicts.
The government should place risk warning signs on all electronic gaming machines, and reduce access to alcohol and ATM machines inside gambling facilities, he said.
B.C. spends the lowest amount per capita on problem gambling in Canada - less than half the provincial average - and there's evidence only a fraction of the people who need help are getting it, Kendall said.
The B.C. Liberal government said gaming revenue helps pay for services such as health care and education, and was also used for $135 million in grants to charities and non-profit groups in the last fiscal year.
The government will spend $11 million this year on responsible-gambling programs, but wants to review how those programs work before expanding services, Finance Minister Mike de Jong said in a statement.
Hasselback said while government draws taxation from gambling, it should be "mitigating damage of problem gamblers."
DBellaart@nanaimodailynews.com 250-729-4235 With A File From The Times Colonist
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