Health centre tackles sports gambling

By Kevin Miller

Some people call it a victimless crime, but the people at the Centretown Community Health Centre see sports gambling a bit differently.

Every day, Betty MacGregor sees people who have had their lives destroyed by gambling. She says whether it’s from horse races, major sports events or ProLine, these people are the victims of an addiction.

“I would parallel it with alcohol use,” she says.”The majority of people use alcohol in a non-problematic way, but some small percentage have problems with it, and it’s similar with gambling . . . for a small percentage, it does create some problems.”

And, if the numbers are any indication, the problem is growing. Feb. 1, 2004 will go down as a watershed mark in gambling. The Superbowl in Houston drew a record amount of money for a one-day event according to state gambling regulators in Las Vegas, Nevada. Gamblers bet a record $81.2 million (all figures U.S.) watching the New England Patriots defeat the Carolina Panthers, breaking the previous 1998 record by five per cent.

And with the U.S. College basketball tournament commonly known as March Madness, which begins March 16, MacGregor says events like this can make it very tough on gamblers trying to kick the habit.

The numbers for March Madness dwarf even those of the Superbowl. While the NFL title game may be the biggest single-day event, gambling during March Madness takes on a life of its own, with office pools, online betting and standard Las Vegas-style, in-person gambling. In 2003, March Madness brought more than $80 million to Las Vegas sports books alone, and online gambling makes it even more accessible.

The most accessible form of gambling in the province, however, is one that is available at almost every convenience store in Centretown and throughout the province.

In October of 1992, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLGC) introduced Ontarians to ProLine, which allows people to bet on the outcome of sporting events at the same lottery booths selling Super 7 and Lotto 6/49 tickets. MacGregor says such easy accessibility can only increase the problem.

Don Pister of OLGC Public Relations has a different view:

“I think the important thing is that with all our products, whether it’s a dollar on 6/49 or a five dollar wager on ProLine, it’s a recreational form of activity,” he says. “That’s it’s intent.”

Pister does acknowledge gambling can become a problem, but also points out that the OLGC does what it can to help people who need it.

“We’re committed to running all of our businesses in a socially responsible manner.” he says, “The line we use to remind people is ‘Know your limit, Play within it,’ and we publish the Problem Gambling Helpline number on the backs of tickets.”

Pister also says ProLine gambling is a relatively low-level form of betting. Even though you can wager anywhere between two and 100 dollars per ticket, he says the average bet is only about five dollars.

Rideau Raceway said there used to be a policy in which problem gamblers could voluntarily ban themselves from all racetracks in Ontario.

They would have their photo taken and distributed, and would not be allowed back in. However, Glen Crouter, vice-president of Media and Community Relations at Woodbine racetrack in Toronto, says that policy posed some legal problems so it’s no longer in effect.

“We used to have that ban, but we no longer have it,” he says. “What happened was that a person put themselves in a self-imposed ban at one of the casinos, not ours, then came back disguised, and then sued the casino for letting him back in.”

Crouter does point out, however, that Woodbine, and all racetracks do have help available in the form of pamphlets that can be picked up anonymously as well as information and addiction services phone numbers if requested.

“We have the [Gambling Helpline] number on the side of the slot machines, and we have pamphlets available at customer service,” says Crouter. “You don’t even have to ask for them, you can just pick them up.”

Whether gambling is entertainment or a disease, it can lead to addictive behaviour. MacGregor says that while The Centretown Community Health Centre is aimed mostly at seniors, there is help available for people of all ages.

“We would refer them to another service because there are other services in Ottawa [aimed] at young people such as the Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre, or . . . the Sandy Hill Community Centre,” she says.