[Naomi Knoch] One-time VLT foe Jim Gray: ‘It’s about managing it, now’

[Naomi Knoch] One-time VLT foe Jim Gray: ‘It’s about managing it, now’

The State
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Naomi Knoch, SEARCH Apprentice Writer

[TheChristians.com] “There’s no such thing as money without a cost.”

VIDEO: [The Fifth Estate] Provincial governments in Canada rely heavily on problem gamblers to fill their coffers. Despite promoting responsible gambling are governments actually preying on gamblers? [Dec. 8, 2017]

Those were James K. Gray’s wise words at the 1998 peak of his crusade against video lottery terminals (VLT’s.) His efforts would be unsuccessful. Gray, the Deep Basin pioneer who had reaped brilliant success with Canadian Hunter Exploration, fought hard. But public opinion was against him: he narrowly failed to get VLT’s kicked out of Alberta. Today, he respects Alberta’s decision and knows the cash-grabbing machines are a permanent fixture.

But he knows his earlier fears concerning their damaging societal impact were not ill-founded.

“People are addicted to the machines and the government is addicted to the funds they produce,” said Gray. “VLT’s have become so engrained that re-opening the debate isn’t an option. Society has become much more open and permissive. It’s part of our fabric.”

The Alberta government generated $1.4 billion in gambling revenue in the year 2017/18 and charities earned $331 million, making gambling one of the province’s most thriving enterprises. Alberta’s economic statement for 2016/17 shows gambling revenue higher than fuel tax, or royalties from crude oil and natural gas.

Gray said his near success in having VLT’s withdrawn had the provincial government nervous. “It’s a huge source of revenue, the government didn’t want the machines removed. They say it’s freedom of choice – while making it as addictive as possible.”

The government isn’t eager to lose VLT’s today either. Gray said the Alberta government is partnered with the gambling industry, using the faces of charities it funds to whitewash the money.

“They’re buying people off with their own money,” said Gray. “It’s a system out of balance. They try to suppress the damage and exaggerate the good.”

“There’s very little for us to do now. The high-water mark was 21 years ago and we fell a little short – which is the same as a lot.”

As co-founder with John Masters of Canadian Hunter, Gray was a longtime high-profile figure in the energy industry. However, it wasn’t his 45-year oil and gas career that led to his anti-VLT initiative.

“I saw the negative impact VLT’s had on people. The machines are designed for maximum addiction. They use sound, lights, air, anything to get people excited to play,” said Gray.

At the time, experts estimated every addict impacts 10 to 17 other individuals, so the estimated 106,000 problem gamblers in 1998 likely affected a minimum 1.6 million Albertans.

Spurred on by the disastrous experiences he saw among problem gamblers, Gray campaigned against the machines, supported by many people with stories of what VLT addiction had done to family, friends and business associates.

Religious communities stood with him. Predictably, he also received energetic backlash from hotel and casino owners. Indeed, a 1997 plebiscite resulted in 60 VLT’s being pulled out of Rocky Mountain House and Sylvan Lake, where the machines remain banned today. However, when several other communities voted to have VLT’s removed, business owners filed a court injunction against the province’s legal right to remove the machines, and they stayed.

Gray’s efforts at least secured a referendum and as the 1998 municipal elections approached, then-Premier Ralph Klein promised any communities voting against VLT’s could have them removed.
But, the vote split 45/55 per cent to keep them.

That settled the matter. The addictive gambling machines aren’t going anywhere now. There are nearly 6,000 VLT’s in Alberta, as well as 19 traditional casinos, 22 bingo facilities, four Racing Entertainment Centres (REC’s), five Host First Nation Casinos, 2,731 lottery ticket centres, and 14,160 casino gaming terminals in REC’s and casinos. VLT’s, called the crack cocaine of gambling, are the most addictive and highest revenue generators.

Gray believes today’s best option is to implement additional regulations and protections for problem gamblers. This would include expanded assistance programs for addicts, a stronger effort to identify and exclude them from facilities, as well as an independent third party ombudsman and whistle blower program.

‘Gambling is an aggressive form of tax on the poorest, most sensitive and vulnerable,” said Gray. “The poor are those most involved. They’re looking for a miracle – trying to save themselves through gambling, the more desperate they are, the more they gamble. Our gambling authorities must recognize that their products are damaging and sometimes destroying families and they must do more to minimize the damage.”

It’s difficult to find fault with a system that benefited over 2,000 charities in 2018, but Gray said charities defend gambling not out of support but because they’re hooked on the money. “There are other forms of income, but once you get hooked, you lose optionality and all solutions are painful. Other revenue sources are hard to inspire, because you’ve moved away from them.”

Nonetheless, Gray appeals to Albertans to not ignore the issue. “People are being injured, families are being hurt, be sensitive to the damage you’re doing and try to offset it wherever possible.”

This is the third column in a series on gambling in Alberta.

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