On Halloween night, six people gather in a Spring Garden Road cafe and trade horror stories.
"I've lost all my money and I live on credit. In the past 13 years, I've lost $250,000 at VLTs. Somehow I'm $30,000 in debt again."
"I've always tried to tell the truth, so I knew I had a problem because I started lying about playing. It escalated in 1999. I was working as a night auditor and I would rush home from the casino to shower and get changed, and then go back to work. I hadn't slept for three days and I started hallucinating. I'd also been stealing from my employer, so they just let me go. Now I earn $20,000 a year. The longest I've ever not gambled is 30 days."
They have dark secrets—skeletons with names like Lucky Larry, Hullah Moolah and Money Storm.
"I now have some control over my daughter's money, but I don't want to destroy her. I was down at the casino and I saw a woman in her mid-70s, grey hair, with a young man in his 40s dragging her out. Is that what I'm supposed to do?"
"I've been addicted since 1994. I live on $750 a month, and I spend more than half of that on VLTs."
"I came close to killing myself. I'm not myself."
Their stories rattle one's heart. Their foolish games and their raw wisdom.
"I was hooked from the very beginning<0x2014>it gave me such a rush."
"My 25-year-old daughter started playing when she was 19. I want to help her but I'm reluctant because I don't believe anything she says. When I retired from teaching, I never thought I'd be raising her son, but he wasn't properly clothed. The power was off. There was all kinds of scamming going on at 2am. He was frightened all the time. It's a miracle that social services didn't step in."
These are the voices of Debbie Langille, Bob Lacey, Don Davison and a man named Steve, who doesn't want his last name published because he's living on credit—and he's $30,000 in the hole. Stories of Alswitha Brown and her elderly father, Donald. All ordinary-looking people who are in extraordinary pain.
Debbie Langille's glasses perch high on her long, serious nose. A tall, resolute, middle-aged woman, Langille is the go-to person for Game Over VLTs, a Halifax-based society that's been trying for three years to get the Nova Scotia government to outlaw video lottery terminals. It's an endeavour she started with the help of former provincial Liberal leader Danny Graham.
She maintains its website, gameovervlts.com, which features more than 50 first-person stories about the impact of VLT addiction. Earlier this year, Game Over VLTs also printed and distributed "VLT Free" stickers for bars and restaurants that don't have the machines—advertising a kind of safe space for VLT addicts, a little like a smoke-free restaurant 10 years ago.
It's been her chief occupation "since everything fell apart." Langille used to be a fraud investigator for the federal government—until she lost her job. She started gambling on VLTs in 2000, two years after Nova Scotia introduced the VLT Moratorium Act. By 2003, she had lost $80,000 in RRSPs and savings, and was another $80,000 in the hole. She declared bankruptcy.
"I know the shame, guilt, loss of self-esteem."
Langille also brought together this group of gambling addicts to discuss what gambling has done to their lives.
They argue that the province can't have it both ways: that it can't be in the business of profiting $93.3 million per year from VLT players, and simultaneously look after the best interests of all Nova Scotians; that it can't claim to prevent gambling addictions, and yet permit VLTs.
"Everything we're hearing about "responsible gambling' is bullshit," she says. "It's not helping the addict."
"Now the liquor store is next to the grocery stores–it's normal. You don't have to put your bottle in a brown bag anymore. Same with gambling–it's normal."
Ninety-three million dollars is one-eighth of the department of Community Services's budget. It's half of what the province pays for road maintenance and more than four times what it has budgeted for student employment. It's big money.
It's also 12 times what the province spent on problem gambling treatment and prevention programs this year.
Forty percent of the money that's gambled in Nova Scotia is estimated to come from the 6.9 percent of adults in the province who are either problem gamblers or at risk for problem gambling—that's 60,000 people.
Gambling in Nova Scotia is the purview of at least three government departments: it's regulated by the department of environment and labour; its revenue is managed by the department of finance under the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation; and the department of health's Office of Health Promotion and Protection directs treatment of gambling addictions.
A fourth department, tourism, runs a responsible gaming training program—"similar to the responsible beverage program" (which trains staff to recognize when customers have reached their alcohol limit)—the corporation's Michaela Becker says. On average, Nova Scotia's 440 VLT vendors each make a whopping $80,000 per year on the devices. In exchange, half their bar staff must participate every three years in the course.
On its webpage, the gaming corporation deflects the big numbers: most Nova Scotians gamble at least once a year, and they're mostly not addicts.
But 92 percent of the provincial gambling revenue isn't generated by people who gamble just once a year; it's from people who gamble at least once a month. And if VLTs are the most lucrative game Nova Scotia regulates—and they are—then bonafide VLT addicts may have forked out most of the $144 million that the province is budgeting as VLT revenue this year.
And is that worth the pain? Not according to addicts like Langille.
October 2Debbie Langille is chain-smoking in the parking lot of a downtown hotel that is hosting the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation's third annual Responsible Gambling conference—which, ironically, happens to be across the street from Casino Nova Scotia.
The conference presenters are an awkward blend of gambling industry insiders, game designers and addictions researchers from Canada, the US and Europe. By bringing so many divergent perspectives to the table, the gaming corporation says it's trying to develop an interesting conversation, says Becker.
Yesterday, during "An Inside Look at Responsible Gambling Efforts in the Casino Environment," an outraged Langille stood up and asked a tough question of CAO Bob Pickus of Trump Entertainment. He had just told an incredible story—practically a legend—about a woman who, in 1986, sat for seven days straight at a slot machine in Atlantic City while a friend brought her food and changes of clothing. She gambled away $250,000. That this was another scary, true story and not an urban myth, was clear to two sets of people in the room: those who had been through that situation, like Langille, and those who had treated someone who had.
"Why didn't anyone stop her?" Langille had asked sternly, first to the mic. Pickus's answer: Because it was 1986— the casino didn't have a system in place yet to deal with addicts; it was her choice....
"I wish they had stopped me," says a still haunted Langille, who says she once sat for eight hours at a VLT. "The outside world didn't exist."
The question of whether VLTs are presenting a public health issue is one that the Nova Scotia government started grappling with 10 years ago—six years after it took over the operation of the VLTs. Nova Scotia was one of the first jurisdictions in North America to do so, but not the last.
At that time, the provincial government commissioned a survey of video lottery players. The results showed that at least one in four regular VLT players was unable to control his or her gambling, and consequently, felt guilt and anxiety.
In response, the province installed a 1-800 gambling help-line staffed by trained counselors, which is now funded by the gaming corporation. It also enacted a moratorium, limiting the number of off-reserve VLTs that can operate in this province; in 1998, there were 3,200 VLTs; now, excluding 560 First Nations VLTs, there are 2,234.
It was part of a social responsibility agenda that has become "RG," a responsible gambling strategy. The goal is to reduce the prevalence of problem gambling in Nova Scotia, reduce the percentage of VLT revenue making up the province's total gaming revenue, reduce the percentage of VLT revenue the province gets from problem gamblers, and to maintain or reduce gaming revenue as a percentage of the total provincial revenue.
Nova Scotia also hosts an annual responsible gambling awareness week. It's been working with the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, which owns the VLTs, to develop and deliver training programs to Nova Scotia's VLT retailers, and with Casino Nova Scotia to provide on-site responsible gambling resource centres and training to its employees. The government has also funded youth gambling prevention programs.
The province's VLT revenue has fallen, from a 2004/05 height of $202 million, to that anticipated $144 million this year. Of that, $93.3 million will become the province's net income.
In mid-November, the gaming corporation launched an Informed Player Choice System card for VLT players, which will permit players to set spending limits and self-exclude from play. It won't be fully implemented until December 2008, but it's a clear, positive move.
"I think it's going to end up like the blood scandal, like smoking, like drinking: when I was a kid, you could have 10 drinks but because of MADD, no one does that now. It's unacceptable."
Does the fact that the government runs the VLTs, and the treatment and prevention of addiction to VLTs, pose an obstacle to treatment?
Elizabeth Stephen wonders if that's part of the reason that fewer people and not more are accessing treatment for their VLT addictions—"It could be that we're not seen as separate enough."
Stephen is an Addictions Drug Dependency Services counsellor. These days, Stephen has a 40-person caseload. Typically, her patients are dealing with more than one addiction.
According to the website of her employer, the Capital District Health Authority, less than 12 percent of Nova Scotians know about gambling treatment services.
On average, someone struggling with gambling will spend $6,981 a year, and someone with a problem with VLTs will spend $14,400 a year.
Gambling treatment in Nova Scotia is funded in part by the gaming corporation, which matches the one percent of the profits that VLT vendors hand over, to fund the Nova Scotia Gaming Foundation—which in turn funds the provincial district health authorities. That means, in 2006/07, the foundation received $709,000—and 429 VLT vendors profited to the tune of more than $35 million.
Unlike Casino Nova Scotia, Addictions Services doesn't have a promotions budget. "We don't advertise," says Stephen's cohort, Mike Buckley.
"We run public service announcements on cable. Occasionally we get a reporter interested, but that's about it."
The fact that the casino advertises in this newspaper concerns Steven. In the past three years, the number of Nova Scotians between the ages of 19 and 34 at some risk for problem gambling jumped to over 15 percent, especially among adults under age 24, and especially on VLTs.
Stephen points out that the $1.1 million that Casino Nova Scotia contributes directly to provincial treatment and prevention hasn't increased in 15 years.
Of all the strategies announced by the gaming corporation, its new Informed Player Choice is the one both Buckley and Stephen are keen to see in action—but they also say it's 18 months late.
"That's the story," presses Stephen. "It will be interesting to see how they work—is it self-exclusion over one week, one month? The government is being a bit canny over how they are going to implement it. It's not a real choice if you can change your mind 48 hours later."
Buckley calls VLTs a high-risk form of gambling that "needs to be seriously curtailed."
"Addictions Services is not against gambling any more than we go and picket liquor stores," says Buckley. "What we're asking is: Is it being managed in a consumer-protected environment?"
"VLTs are the moonshine of gambling. They're the crack cocaine."
October 2 Dr. William Eadington speaks on "The Future of Permitted Gaming: Five Great Challenges to Ponder." Eadington describes a $250 billion global industry—one worth $18 billion in Canada and $85 billion in the US. The industry is now settling into an optimistic second-class status, a huge step up from 30 years ago, when it was outlawed.
A health nurse from Moncton—a gambling addiction prevention counselor—confides her secret to a reporter:
"I'm too embarrassed to tell anyone that my husband has gambled away all my savings and RRSPs on VLTs. No one at work knows. My family thinks that we're separated just because we stopped getting along. Our kids don't even know."
One common analogy is that theNova Scotia government is addicted to VLT gambling. But the Nova Scotia government isn't addicted to VLTs—it's addicted to the 93 million dollars that represent the bulk of its total gaming income.
If the government was addicted to gambling, it would hide from its family. It would get 10 voicemails from its brother wondering if it should hold Christmas dinner—and to please call. Its father isn't a retired schoolteacher who's raising his eight-year-old grandson because his daughter is unfit, partly because of her VLT addiction.
If the government was addicted to VLTs, it would walk past the bar staff 10 times over to withdraw more cash from the debit machine, without the staff ever asking, "Don't you think you've had enough?"
It would exasperatedly hold its head in its hands in Treaty Gas—where you can gamble 24/7 (except on Christmas)—after trading war stories with a husband and wife whose $300,000 loss rivals its own $250,000 debt, including three mortgages.
And it would want to slit its wrists: the most recent numbers place gambling-related suicides in Nova Scotia at three a year, although Langille, Stephen and Buckley all say the actual number is higher—and not just among addicts, but also their families.
But the biggest difference between the government and VLT addicts is that addicts don't win.
"You couldn't spend $1,000 in one day on alcohol–you just couldn't get it in you. Why should you be able to gamble that much?"
October 1Dr. Genevieve Campbell is nervous: "Are there any molecular biologists in the room?"
The Dartmouth family physician sits on the board of Crosbie House in New Minas. Crosbie House is a private 28-day live-in facility which was funded by the province for 22 years—"Until the government shifted its emphasis onto harm reduction," Campbell explains. Twelve residents with a variety of addictions, including gambling, pay $6,500 to go to Crosbie—less than one quarter of the cost of a similar program in Ontario.
There are many women in the banquet room. One, in her 20s, is doodling flowers on her note paper. Some older men wear blue suits and ties. Later today, they will raise their hands when asked if there's anyone in the room who regulates gambling.
But no, there are no molecular biologists. "Oh good," says Campbell.
She confesses she was up in the night worrying because she wants to "get it right." She is presenting a summary of research that attempts to answer the question: Why do some people get addicted to gambling and not others?
The answer is part biology and part proximity: Up to 10 percent of the general population has fewer dopamine receptors than the rest and while these receptors would stop most of us from playing too much, they don't stop a gambling addict.
Campbell's speech generates another moving response, this time from a charismatic, plain-talking, 60ish man. Arnie Wexler is a colleague of CAO Bob Pickus. He holds the distinction of being the only recovering gambling addict on Trump Entertainment's staff. He and his wife are the "guts and bolts," he says, of their treatment prevention and treatment program.
Speaking with a broad New Jersey accent, Wexler nods vigorously at Campbell and exclaims to the room, his voice shaking: "What she said sounded like it was coming from inside of me."
But, he asks, does she think that harm reduction has any place in treating gambling? No, says Campbell: "Anyone who thinks that you can tell an addict they can drink less or smoke less or gamble less is giving them a death sentence."
It's a frightening possibility: While responsible gambling initiatives so far suggest that gambling addicts have just chosen badly, perhaps they really don't have a choice.
"One thing that would satisfy me is if they took all the machines out of the taverns and just kept them in the casinos."
In Quebec, a $700 million class- action lawsuit against Loto-Quebec was filed in 2002 on behalf of an estimated 119,000 people, who have become addicted to VLTs in that province since 1993. The case was expected to go to trial in September but it hasn't yet made it that far.
Earlier this year, in Newfoundland, a class- action suit was launched against the Atlantic Lottery Corporation by the Piercey family on behalf of a daughter and other residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, who have gambled on VLTs: "Atlantic Lotto knows or ought to know that VLTs are inherently deceptive, inherently addictive and inherently dangerous when used as intended," according to its lawyer's webpage.
" has embarked on a "responsible gaming strategy' with messages to consumers which places the onus of responsibility for control and the resulting harm from loss of control on consumers...to blame consumers for problem gambling and divert attention from the fact that problem gambling is a natural result of design features of the VLT." The lawyer is waiting for a judge to set a date for the class certification hearing.
And in Oshawa, Ontario, a former Sydney restaurateur, Ken Hanna, is waiting to see how both the Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador cases turn out. He is organizing a class-action lawsuit against this province, citing its failure to protect consumers against VLTs. "I'm more active right now in gathering info," he says over the phone. He says he lost $500,000, including his businesses, because of his VLT addiction.
"I was always a gambler, but the VLTs were like getting out of the old Model-T and into a race car—you go down that track fast, you have to be addicted," he explains over the phone. Like Arnie Wexler, he chooses his words with care, "I don't say I'm "recovered.' I'm constantly recovering."
Hanna says he's a certified gambling counsellor who also used to work with the province and even operated its first 1-800 gambling hotline in the 1990s—until they let him go.
"It's not a grudge," he insists about the lawsuit. And he's not looking for personal compensation. "What it is, is simply this: I view the government as a system that needs money at whatever cost and they're getting the money whatever way they can...I do think that responsible gambling is what it should be implementing. But do it at arm's length."
Unlike Langille, he doesn't believe that VLTs should be banned: "That won't work—we're all responsible for our own actions when we face the lure, the carrot."
Bob Lacey won $700 the first time he played a VLT in 1994, he says. The second time he won $1,000. "I'm lucky," he says without irony.
Lacey's problem is that he's also unlucky because he can't stop playing. He attributes that to a low-grade depression which he says makes gambling a lot harder to control—his story resonates with Genevieve Campbell's explanations.
His other problem is that he lives on a fixed income and, over the past 13 years, he's lost an untold amount. The night before Halloween, he lost $60. He's not optimistic that the province will pull out of VLTs.
"Everyone in the province is going to be hooked," he imagines. "Or everyone hooked now is going to be dead."
"We can't get enough people pissed off," says Don Davison.
"It can't sustain itself," says Lacey of the province's uber-profitable VLT industry. "People are going to start realizing that."
For her part, Langille is optimistic that a class-action lawsuit against the province will succeed. "It's not a hard case," she said over the phone this week. "All the facts are there."
One of those facts is the tally of gambling-related suicides she's been unofficially and anonymously tracking since 2004, when the Nova Scotia coroner quietly stopped collecting that data. She estimates there have been at least 15.
Across the country, that statistic is hard to pin down: The other provinces that track gambling suicide stats do so in unique ways, making the data difficult to compare. British Columbia's chief coroner's office, for example, can't say how many gambling-related suicides have happened since it started collecting numbers in 2004, despite three high-profile suicides and suicide attempts.
And last week, a Quebec court decided that Loto-Québec must reveal information about suicides that happen at casinos in that province. The Canada Safety Council estimates that 200 compulsive gamblers kill themselves every year in Canada.
Maybe a body count is needed. The state of North Carolina banned VLTs after a baby died in a car while the mother played video poker in a convenience store for seven hours. Or possibly, political will: Last year, three New Jersey congressmen voted to block VLTs from their state.
Or perhaps it requires an escalating tide of class-action lawsuits across Canada to stem the grief that VLTs have brought to Nova Scotia. If we have to wait for one to succeed, then the terrifying prognosis lived out by gambling addicts like the members of Game Over VLTs just might be avoidable.
Lis van Berkel has only played VLTs twice: Both times she knew it was a losing game.
The Night Before Christmasby: Debbie Langille
Twas the night before Christmas, but looking all around,There was no tree, lights, or presents, nothing to be found.The stockings were hung on the bedposts that night, Hoping they’d be filled with goodies to a child’s delight.
The heat isn’t on, so the siblings are cuddled up in their bed, No sugar plums here, Dad had visions of VLTs in his head.The kids tried so hard to have a long nap,Remembering the day that they sat on Santa’s lap.
Then outside in the driveway there were lights and noise,Could it be Santa bringing us toys? It was the police, they were looking for Dad, He got caught stealing money, which made us so sad.
Dad yelled that he’s innocent, it’s because of those VLTs,He begged to let him stay at home, he got down on his knees.The government lied to us, they said the machines were for fun,We could still hear him yelling the games out one by one.
Royals Spins, Lobster Mania, Keno and Poker too,I can’t seem to have a day without playing each of you.Throughout the Province the gamblers fill the coffers so tall,Now cash away, cash away, cash away all.
The money is sucked in those machines, like the wind in the sky,Meanwhile the gambler’s life savings have gone and are dry.Up to the rooftop is how high the debts will be, Losing everything he loves, even his family.
I heard the Gaming Corporation expensively trying to say,Our Nova Scotians are responsible gamblers today.The Province uses the profits for all good things we need,But are blind to what it costs to the problem gamblers in deed.
Dad yells to his family, “if I only could have seen, The misery that came so quickly, because of those machines.”The responsible gambling changes that were added to the VLTs,Did nothing to help the addict, no help for this disease.
The government is now going further; it made me think twice,It’s spending 8 million dollars for a card tracking device.Will it help the addict; I really don’t think so,Why not make facilities for the addict to go?
As the police car takes Dad down the street and out of sight, The family wonders if they’ll every have a happy Christmas night.