[Naomi Knoch] Just another revenue stream at last, as Alberta adopts online gambling

[Naomi Knoch] Just another revenue stream at last, as Alberta adopts online gambling

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By Naomi Knoch, SEARCH Apprentice Writer

[TheChristians.com] It was only 40 years ago that Alberta legalized gambling, and in keeping with public attitudes of the day, only on the understanding that charities would be the prime beneficiaries. Never, blustered politicians, would this ever be a government revenue stream. Heavens no!

VIDEO: [University of Lethbridge] A three-year study on gambling in Canada is nearing completion. Goals include maximizing gambling’s benefits and minimizing its harms. [Dec. 20, 2018]

Today, the Government of Alberta is seeking a vendor through which to offer online gambling, to round out a growing suite of gaming opportunities that already make the province more than $1.4 billion annually – more money than Alberta gets from any one of crude oil, natural gas or fuel taxes.

Government officials coyly decline to give details on how much money this is expected to generate. But most other Canadian provinces have legalized online gaming, and the proceeds should be handsome. Online sites offer a variety of games including online slots, video poker, blackjack, roulette, poker tournaments and sports betting and Albertans already spend about $358 million annually playing them on unprotected, unregulated offshore gaming websites.

Naturally, the government wants a piece of that.

And so last January, the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) put out a Request For Proposals (RFP), looking for a contractor to provide online gambling services. AGLC is reviewing vendor submissions.

“A vendor will be chosen soon, said AGLC Communications Manager Heather Holmen.

Holmen claims the decision to legalize online gaming isn’t only about profit.

“Offshore sites, many illegal, have no standardized source or framework in place for implementing and controlling social responsibility tools or features,” says Holmen. “Alberta however, has the GameSense program designed to help gamblers play smarter and better: AGLC’s GameSense program has been successful and we will continue to provide best in class, responsible gambling features for a future online gambling platform. These will include options for players managing time to setting bet limits.”

The positive impact of such initiatives is unfortunately negligible: It relies on wise choices being made by players whose prior choices have already turned them into addicts…

Alberta already has the highest Canadian percentage of VLT’s and casinos per capita, and pulls in the most gambling-derived government revenue: How will this turn out?

Professor Robert Williams with the Alberta Gambling Research Institute (AGRI), said AGLC’s motivation stems from wanting to recapture money being spent out-of-province on online gaming. Williams warned creating a domestic site doesn’t necessarily garner the revenue hoped for.

“Provinces which legalized online gambling years ago still have to compete with roughly 3,000 other non-provincial options,” said Williams.

Williams said online gambling is “inherently riskier” for addicts, due to the 24-hour convenience, anonymity and freedom to be intoxicated whilst betting.

Alberta then, joins ranks with the rest of Canada in gambling, at least. In 1985 the federal government devolved all control of gambling to individual provinces. In 2012, British Columbia launched the first fully legal Canadian online casino in North America. Except for Alberta and Saskatchewan, all provinces followed suit.

In 2018/19 the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation brought in $92 million from online gaming and Loto-Québec made $105 million. In 2017/18 B.C.’s online site Playnow generated $181 million, a $23 million increase from the previous year.

So for Alberta, enviously watching its neighbours pulling in those extra millions, there’s an obvious pecuniary draw.

Former Calgary oilman Jim Gray said AGLC’s decision to legalize online gaming is something “we shouldn’t be supporting.” Gray led an unsuccessful campaign to ban Alberta VLT’s in 1998.

Dustin Hovdebo, a board member of the Problem Gambling Resources Network (PGRN), agrees.

His online gambling love affair was brutal. Hovdebo played blackjack compulsively for two years, defrauding $28,000 from his employer.

Hovdebo said online gambling is unique and dangerous because of the isolation it allows.

“I could play all night if I wanted to and nobody would know,” he said.

“Every gambler feels like they’re the worst monster, but the online aspect just accentuates this because you don’t see anyone else gambling.”

Like too many other addicts, Hovdebo nearly lost his mind over the secretive, desperate, double life he was leading online. He lost $90,000 over two years and contemplated suicide before coming clean to his employer and girlfriend.

Hovdebo joined Gambler’s Anonymous and hasn’t gambled in eight years.

PGRN Executive Director Ray Reshke also has qualms.

“Accessibility has always been the issue and I’d intuitively conclude this is a bad idea. It’s just going to provide another avenue for gamblers to access addictive material.”

Online gaming provides what land-based casinos are unable to – 24-hour availability and payment options that don’t require parting with physical cash.

So, charities will continue to benefit, likely a little more, from Albertans’ love for gaming.

However, the old excuse is gone. In the recent United Conservative Party budget, the Alberta Lottery Fund was dissolved. All gaming proceeds will now be poured into general revenue, where other monies payable to government go, and from which charity cheques will be issued… like everything else the government pays for.

Bottom line: Gambling revenue has become a government crutch, something we were told decades ago it never would be.

Slippery slopes do exist… and Alberta has just slid down one.

This is the final column in a series examining all the angles of gambling in Alberta.

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