N.S. dissolves gambling awareness organization, reallocates funds from VLTs

The Nova Scotia government has quietly dissolved a non-profit arm’s-length government organization dedicated to funding gambling prevention and research groups, moving the money to a more general mental health pool.

The decision to end Gambling Awareness Nova Scotia (GANS) is being criticized by a community group that received grants through the organization, and which says there’s now looming uncertainty about whether its work will be supported.

“In the middle of COVID … isn’t there more of a need to do this prevention work and community awareness work?” said Bruce Dienes, chair of Gambling Risk Informed Nova Scotia, a non-profit that aims to reduce the community harms associated with gambling. “This is the time when people are most vulnerable.”

Part of the funding for GANS, according to the government’s website, was “generated from a percentage of VLT revenues, matched by the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation.”

The province said in a statement that VLT retailers provide about $250,000 annually to support mental health and addictions services.

The province did not say when the organization was dissolved, but Dienes said he learned of it in the fall and GANS’s regulations were changed in October.

He said he was told by the Department of Health and Wellness that because of “new information” it had come to realize there are comorbidities with gambling also associated with depression and anxiety, which justified sharing the funds more widely.

“The idea that this is new information is ridiculous, we’ve known this for decades,” he said.

VLTs are known to be the most addictive form of gambling, due to the flashing lights, neon colours and reward method of reinforcement.(John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Dienes believes the province made the move as a way to deal with the “profound lack of funding for mental health in Nova Scotia.”

No one from the Department of Health and Wellness was available to speak to CBC for this story.

In a statement, spokesperson Marla MacInnis confirmed that GANS will become part of the overall mental health and addictions budget — which is roughly $300 million annually — citing changes in the last two decades around gambling and how best to support it.

“Problem gambling often occurs with other mental health and addictions issues, and due to the stigma, people often initially seek help for other issues. It’s best if people can access support that addresses these issues together,” MacInnis said.

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been the restrictions placed on gambling in Nova Scotia related to public health protocols.

There were no sports games to bet on, and many casinos and bars were ordered to closed. In the height of the spring COVID-19 lockdown, counselling therapist Elizabeth Stephen said some of her clients simply stopped gambling.

“It was like a gift to some people that have problems that never really get that break,” said Stephen, who is based in Halifax. “Of course, that didn’t last long.”

Elizabeth Stephen, a Halifax-based counsellor who specializes in treating people addicted to gambling, says the lockdown did not mean problem gamblers automatically turned to using online methods. Some of them simply stopped gambling.(Submitted photo)

After a second shutdown late in 2020, the province reopened the Halifax and Sydney casinos, video lottery terminals and First Nations gaming establishments on Jan. 8.

Igor Yakovenko, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, said international data found that gambling decreased in all forms as things were closed globally.

When restrictions loosened in Nova Scotia, Stephen said some of her clients returned to gambling, but it varied case by case. In some instances, she said people who hadn’t gambled in a long time returned to VLTs because of the “wearing-you-down kind of stress of COVID.”

Yakovenko, who is a clinical psychologist, said there are many barriers for people to get help, including not knowing where to go in Nova Scotia. He said research suggests that harm reduction and prevention are the most effective ways to help people.

“We need services and public health resources that minimize problems from developing in the first place or, if you’re already gambling, they prevent you from escalating that gambling,” he said.

Earlier this month, CBC News reported that the Atlantic Lottery Corporation is preparing to expand its online casinos to Nova Scotia and P.E.I., which would allow for bigger bets than what is currently allowed on in-person VLTs.

The pandemic is believed to have made a significant dent in Atlantic Lottery’s revenues.

Dienes said having VLTs available online goes against the province’s VLT moratorium, which removes the gaming devices if a bar shuts down instead of reallocating them.

“They call them the crack cocaine of gambling,” he said. “To backtrack on that acknowledgement of the danger of VLTs and to be slowly getting rid of them, and to move to amplifying that on the internet with essentially unlimited access is appalling. It’s totally irresponsible.”

Atlantic Lotto launched an online casino for New Brunswick residents in August 2020. An online casino was approved in P.E.I. last month and is being proposed for Nova Scotia.(CBC)

According to the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation’s website, there are 2,012 VLTs in the province and 651 VLTs in Mi’Kmaw communities.

Both the Nova Scotia Department of Finance and Atlantic Lottery say the implementation of online casino-style games in Nova Scotia is still being evaluated. Neither provided a timeframe for when a decision will be made.

Greg Weston, a spokesperson with Atlantic Lottery, said they regularly consult with responsible gambling experts when developing new products. He also said he believes it’s important to offer a regulated alternative to the 3,000 offshore gambling websites available to Atlantic Canadians.

“One benefit would be to repatriate players now playing with illegal offshore providers, and by doing so repatriating money being spent on offshore sites to help fund public services to benefit Atlantic Canadians,” he said in a statement.

Both Yakovenko and Stephen hope the province consults with experts in the area and uses current research in deciding whether Atlantic Lottery should be allowed to move to an online casino model.

“From my perspective, the risks far outweigh the profits,” Stephen said. “Someone has to lose in order for us to make money.”

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