Kings Community Action Group questioning province’s gambling strategy

Wendy Elliott
Published on August 28, 2014

Kings Community Action Group on Gambling spokesman Bruce Diene.

©Wendy Elliott

Members of a Valley activist group are concerned about the province’s decision last week to scrap the My Play System for video lottery terminal gambling.

Volunteers with Kings Community Action Group on Gambling, spokesman Bruce Dienes said, view the decision as a lost opportunity to reduce gambling harms for Nova Scotians.

“The problems highlighted about the system were due to the flawed rollout that included the ‘light enrollment option’ that did not require users to register,” he said of the program launched in 2012.

“Our observations and conversations with VLT gamblers and venue staff indicate that the full benefits of the system were circumvented by this option,” Dienes said.

He said that the card was being used primarily in the function of an on/off switch.

“Visits to VLT venues showed boxes overflowing with the cards and venue staff and VLT gamblers report discarding cards and getting new ones often multiple times during a VLT gambling session,” he added.

That isn’t how the program was supposed to work.

Dienes, who has a PhD in sociology, said the benefits of the My-Play information tools, including historical information, current gambling session information, the ability to set limits on time and money and the ability to restrict access to the VLT product, are redundant, when VLT gambler can simply remove the card and reverse any previous decisions taken to set limits by replacing it with another.  

“We believe that the light enrollment option is contrary to the harm minimization objective of the My Play system and advocate for the single option of universal, mandatory full enrollment to optimize system benefits for gamblers,” he said.

“We had numerous conversations about the possibility that this ineffective roll out of the system would be framed as inherent system flaws and wasteful use of money and that there may be a move to in effect ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ Unfortunately this is the direction the government has decided to take.”

Dienes said the research on the My Play and similar systems shows very positive results in harm reduction when the cards are mandatory and unique to the individual; however, they are limited to no impact with “light” enrollment. 

Dienes noted that experience in Norway with mandatory controls was very different.

Not anti-gambling

The Kings action group is not an anti-gambling organization, Diene said, and isn’t looking for a ban on the practice.

“We are concerned with reducing the harmful effects of gambling,” he explained. “It is widely understood that VLTs and similar rapid-response electronic gambling machines are the most harmful form of gambling.”

One in four VLT users are at risk of problem gambling, he said, with almost half the revenue from the machines in Nova Scotia comes from those identified as “problem gamblers.”

Unlike cigarettes and alcohol, Dienes said, there are no warnings on each machine to disclose the dangers of dependency, and so the users are unable to give informed consent to engage in risky behaviour.

According to the sociologist’s study of the subject, brain scans of regular cocaine users and regular VLT users show similar patterns.  

The group is calling on the provincial government to “look beyond short-term financial gain to the expense of the health and safety of its citizens, and rethink the removal of the one tool we have that can, if implemented correctly, significantly reduce harms.”

The My Play system moved to a voluntary model Aug. 22, and will start to be disabled Monday, Sept. 8.

“We do understand that there is a need to have support and services for those affected by problem gambling," said Health and Wellness Minister Leo Glavine in a release about the cards.

"We continue to offer gambling support services throughout the province for all Nova Scotians, and I would encourage anyone affected by problem gambling to please call the Problem Gambling Help Line at 1-888-347-8888 or seek assistance through their local health provider."