A WHOLE NEW WORLD
“Icome from a family of people that gamble,” John says. “I learned how to play poker from my grandfather when I was like three. I’ve always been kind of attracted to money.” This explains his Bachelor degree in business, his “early” Bitcoin investment and his steady, if unexciting, day job in a business vocation.
If you or someone you care about needs help with gambling, reach out to one of the following resources:
Nova Scotia’s Gambling Support Network
Text "GSN" to 1-902-700-7702
Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line
A casual observer seeing John walk into Casino Nova Scotia’s bar wouldn’t pin him as a high-stakes gambler. In sweatpants, an American football jersey and a hat that says “Dad,” he looks more apt for a night in, playing video games. Instead, like he’ll do 13 times more before the month’s end, he’s arriving at the casino on the downtown Halifax waterfront hoping to win big.
“My grandmother frequented this place probably more than her job,” he says, sitting before a draught Budweiser that he sips like a bird. Over the course of an hour, barely a quarter of it vanishes. Gambling “passed down through my mother,” he says. On his 19th birthday, she took him to the casino for the first time. He won $10. It’s been a second home ever since.
John, whose real name and identifying details are concealed here by The Coast to protect his anonymity, is in his early thirties and says he’s seen both sides of the coin. Though his mother raised him on welfare and his grandmother had a well-paying career, both were gamblers. He’s also part of the generation that hasn’t known a Nova Scotia without thousands of gambling machines—slot-heavy casinos in Halifax and Sydney and video lottery terminals scattered at hundreds of sites across the province. At least, it was that way until the COVID-19 pandemic.
Once public health orders shut down onsite play, gamblers like John were unable to take part in their ritual. The casinos were closed for two extended periods in fiscal 2020-21—open only around 33 percent of their normal operating days. During the same period, the Atlantic Lottery Corporation (ALC) calculated that figure for VLTs at 65 percent. (Both were also shut between late April and mid-June 2021.)
John recalls being in the casino when he first heard it would shut down. “I was kind of taken aback, because I had such a system of coming here. It’s like going into work. You don’t have to think about it. It’s just in your schedule.”
Instead, he started using PokerStars and other gambling websites. “It started off slowly, only a day or two per week, but quickly rose to six-to-seven days a week once I saw how convenient it was.”
It’s a Monday evening and John’s planning to wager $5,000 tonight, the equivalent of about 10 percent of his annual salary. (Or for this writer, eight months of rent.) He’s posted about his trips to the casino for years on Facebook, cheekily asking who among his friends (who might wager $100 in comparison) wants to make money that night. When he’s playing with others, he says he’ll stick closer to their budget. Tonight though, he’s flying solo, and agreed to meet me to talk first.
John speaks confidently as though the odds aren’t in the house’s favour, as though winning is almost a certainty. For anyone who doesn’t gamble much (myself included) it inspires some awe, and a measure of secondhand nervousness. But when I ask about his secret—wondering, despite my personal view that gambling wastes money, if I might indulge in his school of gaming and win some money tonight—I learn there isn’t one. He says he just plays often enough, and on a big-enough scale, that when he comes out ahead it makes for a heftier prize. Not every night is a win, but it evens out over the month or year. And he genuinely enjoys casino gaming in a way many people don’t. It intertwines with his life—from family and friends to memories of big wins to building wealth. (My idea of trying to emulate him passes quickly, unspoken.)
Gambling is big business in Nova Scotia, with almost $1.4 billion wagered in 2019-20. Casinos and VLTs combined provide 75 percent of this revenue (the rest is mostly ALC lotto and scratch tickets, and to a lesser extent bingo and charitable ticket lotteries). It’s widely documented that most of this money comes from at-risk and problem gamblers. Though their prevalence is poorly studied, a recent estimate suggests there are the equivalent of at least 20,000 to 30,000 at-risk or problem gamblers in Nova Scotia. Past estimates have been even higher.
Research shows gambling addiction rates increase in local areas with physical gambling locations, like casinos. And a recent national study found that provinces with VLTs have higher rates of at-risk or problem gambling than those without. Nova Scotia, of course, checks both these boxes. Though this pandemic has caused thousands to go without in-person gambling cold turkey, impact on gamblers has largely been overlooked when discussing the pandemic’s consequences.
Speaking with experts and consulting the latest research, COVID seems to be pushing gamblers in two different directions: Some gamblers stop entirely, others go at it harder than before. In fact, calls and texts to Nova Scotia’s Gambling Support Network doubled in 2020-21, meaning people were either seeking help or felt they were in crisis.
Yet, looking ahead to post-pandemic life, Nova Scotia’s gambling industry may go into overdrive. There’s been talk of building a new casino in hopes of refreshing and bringing new revenue to a concept which consistently performs below expectations. Earlier this year the then-Liberal government made changes to the Gaming Control Act approving an online casino through ALC, an idea the province previously spurned for almost a decade. On a federal level, the summertime legalization of single-game sport betting—wagering money on events like which team will win a pro hockey game or who will score a goal—created a new legal gambling industry, which now awaits provincial endorsement.
As the gambling industry regains its bearings and Tim Houston’s newly elected Progressive Conservative government decides priorities, Nova Scotians sit on the cusp of an important moment. Historically, the issue of gambling has been viewed through lenses of revenue generation, tourism and job creation in Nova Scotia, despite never living up to high expectations in these categories. COVID disruptions offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reframe gambling through a public health lens, and to start making future decisions for the industry based on harm reduction and community impact instead of profit.
John plays for about an hour, breaks for dinner and then fits in another two. He loses overall, though not his whole $5,000 budget. In November, he’s “pretty sure” if he was still keeping spreadsheets he’d be in the red. Maybe, if he’s lucky in the future, he’ll win the losses back and then some. He’s banking on it.
FOOL ME ONCE
Nova Scotia had worthy goals when it legalized gambling machines back in 1991, but the main concern was financial. The early nineties were a time of massive deficits ($345.5 million in 1991-92 alone), and the province needed to plug the hole. Gambling seemed like a dream. Outflows of cash from Nova Scotian gamblers to the casinos popping up across North America or to unregulated VLTs in the province would be curbed into provincial coffers. Plus new money would flow in from tourists wanting to experience Atlantic coastal beauty while gambling, instead of dusty old Vegas. The whole proposition was itself a calculated bet: Chasing profits with physical gambling machines meant Nova Scotia accepted a series of risks, including the potential for increased gambling addictions.
It’s been 30 years since ALC took over VLTs. Critics worried they were “at odds with traditional lifestyle,” but the government wanted to regulate the machines and, of course, keep a chunk of revenues which otherwise were going into private pockets. The VLT business was reportedly worth $30 million at the time. But this amount ballooned up to four times that much under government watch.
VLTs are a story of worst-case scenarios. By 1998, the province was concerned enough over their addictive nature that it put out a call seeking proposals to help. “The status quo is not acceptable,” said then-Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation vice-chair Dara Gordon. “There is a need to change the program.” But the situation didn’t improve. By 2005, stories of VLT addiction and resulting suicides were well-reported in Nova Scotia. Some, like the story of a man setting his car alight with him inside or a bar owner getting rid of the machines following a regular player’s suicide, even made national headlines. That year the province planned to retire 1,000 machines, and thanks to a still-existing moratorium, their number is capped at 2,025. But reconciling the machines and public health has remained a challenge.
My-Play, a system which helped VLT players track and set play limits, was integrated to all Nova Scotian VLTs for two years starting in 2012. While it was publicly deemed ineffective and scrapped, privately the government noted the “significant drop in revenue” (about 35 percent from pre-My-Play revenues, only two fiscal years later) as part of the reason for its demise.
Now there’s talk of opening an online casino, a suggestion rejected for more than a decade before the former Liberal government approved it. The province’s 2011 Gaming Strategy specifically said it wouldn’t allow online casino or poker games, and that part of its research agenda would “focus on the impacts of regulated Internet gambling on key population health, economic, and social measures.”
But this change of heart isn’t based on research.
Instead, it’s at the urging of ALC, which viewed the pandemic-era shift to online gambling as an “opportunity” to increase revenues and encouraged all four Atlantic provinces to come on board. Only one has so far. A quick scan of the games available online on New Brunswick’s ALC iCasino shows virtual machine-style games similar to the electronic gaming machines found across Nova Scotia as well as online versions of table games. The maximum bets make even casino high limits look small—upwards of $50 per spin on some machines, and $500 a hand on some table games. (The use of so-called PlayWise tools, like limits on deposits, betting and time to play, is left to the gambler’s discretion.)
New Brunswick’s iCasino took in $7.3 million in wagers in its first several months of operation. This exceeded original goals by $500,000, according to CBC, due to “heavier than expected play” on virtual card and table games.
On one hand, Nova Scotia has deemed physical versions of these machines harmful enough to limit their presence in the marketplace. On the other, there’s a pressing invitation to ignore earlier concerns and criticisms and seize this economic moment by offering a similar version, playable anywhere with an internet connection.
The casinos, which opened to fanfare in 1995, are a story of either unmet potential, delusions of grandeur or something in between. VLTs made big bucks from the start, but despite a $100 million pre-payment from the casino operator, Nova Scotia’s gambling palaces struggled to get off the ground from the day they opened.
The case made for building the stand-alone Halifax casino, which sits today at 1983 Upper Water Street, focused on growing revenues and enhancing tourist appeal over its original location inside a waterfront Sheraton hotel. In 2020 I reported that, despite expectations casinos would bring the government annual revenues of $50,000,000 or more, the actual yearly average was $28,366,000 between 1997 and 2019. And despite the numbers of visiting tourists and the dollars they spend growing in Nova Scotia, casino revenues haven’t followed that growth pattern. The few truly successful casinos in Canada are located in the country’s biggest cities, or are located adjacent to the US border.
Despite this history, there was a surprising revelation during the pandemic: the consideration of a replacement casino for Halifax to help bolster flagging fortunes. CBC spent four years trying to acquire documents about a potential move following a public tip about the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation’s plans. It turns out the NSGC has considered, in one scenario, moving the casino from Halifax’s tourist-laden waterfront to Bayers Lake Business Park.
While some might say it’s simply replacing one casino with another, moving it away from tourists and into the suburbs speaks volumes about who will fill its coffers. CBC’s Shaina Luck reported in March any potential move was on hold until the end of the pandemic, and now that more than 80 percent of Nova Scotians are fully vaccinated, this conversation is surely forthcoming. The casino has previously tried boosting revenue by relocating, in a less competitive era, and failed. There’s no evidence another turnaround attempt will be worth the expense or the effort. But this shows how entrenched the commitment has been in recent years to an idea that hasn’t worked and has worsened gambling addictions in Nova Scotia’s two largest population centres.
Beyond a possible online casino and a new bricks-and-mortar casino, there’s also the potential for single-sports betting. Sports-minded gamblers were previously limited to betting on multiple games at a time (so-called “parlay” wagering) on Proline tickets. But the sports-betting industry has boomed in recent years, moving from shadowy bookies to a multi-billion-dollar global industry. The rhetoric surrounding it sounds familiar. For instance, national industry trade group the Canadian Gaming Association estimates Canadians spend $14 billion each year on bets made through illegal bookmaking or offshore wagering sites.
Similar talk supported Nova Scotia’s first forays into VLTs and casinos. The easy-money allure of converting a criminal enterprise into a government profit centre convinced the government to buy into a risk where the reward has been less than expected. Worse, today it’s doing so in an environment where gambling research and addiction treatment is scant. But as bigger federal government transfer payments and provincial surpluses started adding up, combined with the lower-than-anticipated revenues from the casino, reduced VLT counts and My-Play, earnings should have looked less and less worth the risk over time.
Nova Scotia isn’t unique in repeating yesterday’s myths, but to move ahead as a society with a progressive approach to gambling, it’s not enough to use them to justify tomorrow’s actions. To reduce harm and better serve the people, the province needs a new strategy.
The pandemic is the first time there’s been such a prolonged period of gambling site closures. It’s inspiring researchers around the world to uncover how it impacts gamblers.
review first published in April looked at 17 gambling publications, including three Canadian ones, to identify what’s occurring during the pandemic for people with gambling disorders. “Not surprisingly given the closure of land-based gambling, an overall reduction in gambling frequency and expenditure was reported in all studies,” authors David Hodgins and Rhys Stevens write. Among some groups, however—especially males, those with increased problem gambling severity and younger age groups—they noticed gambling increase. But since some gamblers may increase problematic gambling habits, even while others have fewer problems, future findings may vary.
“Post-pandemic follow-ups will reveal who returns and does not return to previous levels of gambling involvement,” the authors add.
“International data is available,” says Igor Yakovenko. “Canadian data is available. Nova Scotia data is not, which is part of the problem here.”
Doctor Yakovenko, an assistant professor and the director of Dalhousie’s Transdiagnostic Addiction Lab, asked Canadians (including some Nova Scotians) retroactively about their gambling right before COVID-19 and right after the first wave of openings last summer for a forthcoming research project.
“There wasn’t just a general decrease, but potentially some indication of a rebound,” he says. To understand specifically what’s happening in Nova Scotia might take another year or two. Research Nova Scotia and the department of health and wellness recently advertised a funded research opportunity to find out the impact of reduced access to gambling products on Nova Scotian gambling behaviours.
Yakovenko feels heartened by what he describes as increasing interest and funding for gambling research in Nova Scotia, but adds there are challenges undertaking it in Nova Scotia. Surveys have been infrequent over the years, the last wide survey of gamblers taking place in 2013. Early ones which used different sample sizes and methodologies were difficult to compare against each other. In December 2009, Mark Anielski, a contracted gambling researcher, was fired and his 325-page draft study shelved. Among the criticisms were small sample sizes and too much focus on gambling addiction.
The 2012, five-year Together We Can mental health and addictions strategy promised it would start to “collect and monitor alcohol, drug, gambling data” in 2013-14. Yet in a 2016 update it was one of only a few projects not even started. Yakovenko says Nova Scotia’s small population size makes it difficult to find at risk and problem gamblers. Using the 20,000-to-30,000 figure, about one in 10 of these gamblers is necessary to take part in a survey to ensure accurate scientific data.
Yakovenko says that the only way is to get better access to gamblers. Because the government doesn’t enable researchers to connect with at-risk and problem gamblers to encourage participation, this impacts the accuracy and quality of our knowledge.
For instance, a survey based on 10 participants has a margin of error of 31.6. Meaning the statistic found could be within a range 31.6 percent above or below that number. This margin drops, and confidence rises, as sample size increases. For instance, with 100 participants the margin of error becomes 10 percent. With 1,000 it improves to 3.2 percent.
For now, one of the best figures is from a January 2021 study, co-authored by Robert Williams and a group of mostly Albertan researchers. In the report, which calculated national gambling addiction data based off the Canadian Community Health Survey, Atlantic Canada’s gambling addiction rates were calculated at 2.7 percent at-risk and 0.6 percent gambling addicted. (The sample size was too small to reliably isolate Nova Scotia.) These figures were identical to the national average. (The total number of people surveyed in the study by Williams et al was over 23,000.)
“We’d love to see more gambling research, maybe even more importantly, more cooperation between the standing government and researchers to have a conversation about facilitating research, facilitating data gathering and implementing that data,” Yakovenko says.
Helpful changes in that regard could include letting researchers go to casinos and approach people to take part in surveys. That way they can directly reach the relatively small population of at-risk and problem gamblers in a province of nearly one million residents, instead of marketing the survey more broadly in the vain hope of finding them. (According to the NSGC it “does not provide individual player information due to privacy restrictions.”)
For the government, research that shows negative impacts of gambling is bad for business. But it’s also necessary for the health and welfare of residents, and to continually reassess the risks that casino and VLT gambling bring to the province.
JOHN PUSHING LIMITS
I was sitting in the Scotia Square food court just finishing lunch when I got the call from my daughter’s mother that we were having a baby. I was heading to my accounting final, my last of university. I passed, luckily.
Going through the summer it was like alright, what do I do? A child on the way. I don’t really have a job. What am I doing? My grandmother offered me a trip out to Vegas with her boyfriend. Sure, I thought. Let me just get away for a little while.
We ran away from the situation for three weeks. I won somewhere around $70,000CAD. That sort of money seems nice, but you know, when you’ve got to buy everyday life things like new clothes, things for my daughter—and a video game system and some games—and come back, without anything to fall back on, it doesn’t last. I picked up a part-time job when I got back.
By my count I’ve taken at least 30 trips out of Nova Scotia to gamble, including to Niagara Falls, Vegas and Reno. I’d either use vacation time or be in between jobs when I went. The Vegas Strip is my favourite. Anywhere I can go and just take my drink and walk down the street and into the next place is great for me. In Vegas, spend enough and they’ll give you a free hotel room. private tables and you can change the odds a little if you claim enough cash-back rewards. Here, I get a lot of the monthly rewards for spending through Player’s Club. In the high-limit room, anyone that’s in there’s afforded free drinks and snack foods like sandwiches and chocolate bars. Nothing like you see in Vegas.
My move to higher-limit gambling was a combination of having a kid and the luck in Vegas, but definitely more so being to Vegas and winning. It was like all right, I can do that. I thought, let me come back and see if I can do that here. If I start to fail a little bit, I still have a small nest egg that I can work with. I thought to myself, you know, I’d like a house. I should probably put something away. No car. I taxied literally everywhere, or walked if I had to. That sum of money really started where I am now. That sparked me playing higher stakes because I had money.
EMPIRE IN DECLINE
Walking into the waterfront casino shortly before Halloween 2020, was a different experience than I remembered. The tables weren’t open. Nobody was slinging drinks behind the bar. A cart of complimentary coffee, tea and pop going around offered the only refreshments available to drink at the slot machines. When I went into the adjacent May Garden restaurant for a Caesar, I had the entire place to myself. The casino had barely been open for a month after it’s first closure, and though I didn’t know this then it would shut down again in less than 30 days.
There was a certain energy missing but it felt like a less risky environment. Even with built in elements of harm reduction that might make the experience more entertaining, people weren’t deterred from gambling.
Casino Nova Scotia had inadvertently stepped into the realm of what Mariano Chóliz calls “ethical gambling.” In a 2018 paper, the University of Valencia professor proposes a model that includes restrictions on advertising and marketing strategies, accessibility and availability of games and rules. During COVID-19 the casino reduced the ability to drink while gambling, limited capacity and availability of table games and closed overnight. Taken together, steps like these can help create “the necessary environmental conditions that permit gambling as an economic activity, but with the primary objective of preventing potential health risks, primarily gambling disorder.”
Advertising, which was suspended during casino closures and resumed after reopening, is a different story. “These advertisements were focused primarily on the fact the casinos were opened and focused on providing a safe entertainment experience while strictly adhering to public health requirements,” the NSGC says.
While limited hours and tee-totalling may seem like a step back, it’s more emblematic of the original vision of Canadian casinos. Early ones like Winnipeg and Montreal didn’t originally allow patrons to drink while gambling. (Meanwhile Casino Nova Scotia’s original management, Sheraton Casinos, submitted a report to the NSGC explaining how looser alcohol restrictions on drinks would increase revenues.) These sorts of ideas were harm reduction tactics, but disappeared from the landscape quickly in favour of chasing higher revenues.
Prior to the pandemic, in the 2019-20 fiscal year out of $76,601,000 net revenue, provincial revenue (after operating expenses and revenue to management company Great Canadian Gaming Corporation) was only $28,987,000 from both the Halifax and Sydney casinos combined. Once the pandemic hit, tempered expectations weren’t even met. NSGC’s CEO told CBC in March that he expected around $9 million from casinos in 2021. But actual provincial revenue for 2020-21 was $6,463,000, down nearly 80 percent from the year prior.
The government has previously placed some blame for declining casino revenues on VLTs, so introducing an online casino with similar games and a new type of betting will impact IRL casinos as well. They’ll all be competing for the same pool of gamblers. To grow revenues across all gambling channels isn’t possible without some sort of sacrifice (for instance, not pursuing new gambling options to optimize current ones), or a negative public health outcome like increased numbers of or spending by at-risk or problem gamblers. Nova Scotia doesn’t have an infinite pool to draw from.
Additionally on the physical gaming front, VLTs impact almost every corner of the province (including First Nations, where they operate under a special arrangement with NSGC). At the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year, there were 1,931 VLTs (excluding First Nation sites) in Nova Scotia, down from 2,012 at the previous fiscal year-end. The amount of sites has been reduced by more than half since the moratorium.
They play a larger role than casinos—by about four times—on the province’s revenues. During 2020-21 they brought in $91 million in Nova Scotia, $39 million below expectations. Yet despite the efforts made to reduce play over the years, VLTs have seen some year-over-year increases since removing My-Play. Even with the pandemic, more was wagered in 2020-21 on VLTs than in the 1998-99 fiscal year when the need for reform was first announced by the NSGC.
According to the NSGC, 209 VLTs have been removed from the market in the past decade. With some VLT retailers closing permanently due to COVID-19, I wondered if that meant those machines were unplugged forever. “When a VLT retailer closes permanently, normally that VLT is taken out of service,” communications officer Jillian Moore says over email. But the corporation intends to “redeploy machines in Nova Scotia that have been temporarily removed due to COVID-19 measures to help support retailers as they recover.”
Robert Williams says there’s a lot of “smoke and mirrors” with reductions. Only when they are “really substantial” are differences in the health of gamblers visible. Even a 10 percent reduction isn’t enough, for instance, to really inconvenience them.
Through research for the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) study he’s working on, it’s been observed that restricting casino patronage to 25 percent hardly impacts revenues because of an overabundance of gambling machines. “When you recognize that problem gamblers still endeavour to access those machines and account for most of the revenue, reducing the recreational gamblers really doesn’t affect their participation.”
“I’m talking about 50 percent reductions or more to really have a dent in problem gambling,” he said. The sort of changes visible, for example, if a casino closed entirely or another 1,000 VLTs were permanently unplugged. The 2021 problem gambling study Williams co-authored suggests a correlation between at-risk and problem gambler totals and the number of electronic gaming machines per 1,000 adults. British Columbia and Ontario, which lack VLTs entirely, were found to have the lowest rates of problem gamblers in the country.
Williams’ observations seem to track when looking at the decline in earnings at both casinos and VLTs during 2020-21. Casinos spent 67 percent of days that year closed (in addition to capacity restrictions), and total wagers declined by 77.6 percent. For VLTs, on the other hand, closures impacted them 35 percent of the time, while wagers declined only 24.6 percent. This suggests that it’s possible to reduce physical onsite gambling in Nova Scotia with major intervention, though we’ve yet to see what consequences it brings.
He also suggests it’s possible in some cases a minority of gamblers are spending more which causes revenues to increase, despite trends like gambling reductions which should cause spending to decline. This could explain, in part, why VLT earnings have had positive momentum over the past several years, despite limitations on numbers of machines. This can only be understood with deeper research into the province’s gambling habits.
JOHN AT THE CASINO
I’ve seen a lot of addicts gambling here. And to me, I think I define a gambling addiction differently than a lot of people. I think it’s only an addiction when you really let it start to take your mental health down. So when you constantly go over your limits—you start to dip into ‘I can’t pay my bills, it’s affecting other parts of my life.’ I’ve had a couple of mentally down nights at casinos where I go over my limit. Nights where I feel that I probably shouldn’t have been there. And then I lost, which kind of solidified that I probably shouldn’t have gone. Kind of like those gut feeling moments that I just ignore. It’s like, I probably shouldn’t have spent that money. But knowing that, you know, my bills are paid. My kids are fed. It’s not that bad.
Is my gambling a problem? I’ve actually had the question come up a few times in conversation with friends and whatnot. My gambling is well-known amongst friends and close family. I have always said I don’t have a problem with gambling. I occasionally have a problem with losing. I’ve never felt it’s a real issue. It’s never got to that point that I’ve seen a lot of people get to where their whole life is disappearing.
I encounter those people all the time though. Out the casino’s front door and slightly to the left, where people normally have a smoke, I’ve heard a lot of really bad conversations. Nothing to the suicidal limit, but I’ve heard of people on the verge of their marriages breaking up, or about to be kicked out of their houses or apartments. I’ve literally seen people sleeping on the benches out there.
Prior to the big Vegas win there were a couple of nights where I’ve been the one to have to take a nap on what used to be the couch out front. Making bad decisions on spending my last $20 of taxi money and having to wait for that 6am bus home instead. There have also been nights that I’ve gone beyond my budget. The most in one night, as I recall, is about $10,000. And then I leave, but it doesn’t really hit me until the next morning—I really shouldn’t have done that. It’s always the realization that comes 12 hours later, instead of right away. It almost feels like you got fired from your job. That realization that something relatively large has gone wrong, and there aren’t too many ways to fix it. You can’t take it back and redo it.
IMPACTS ON ADDICTION
With the limited information available to date, it’s challenging to assess exactly how COVID-19 has affected Nova Scotian gamblers. When I contacted Nova Scotia’s Gambling Support Network, I expected their call volume would be down, as seen in other jurisdictions, due to fewer in-person gambling options. But their call volume nearly doubled in 2020-21: up to 1,148 from 628 the prior year.
GSN won’t say what their success metric is—whether it’s considered successful, for instance, to have people call because it means they’re actively seeking help, or if it’s negative because it means the caller’s in crisis.
When I asked Yakovenko he said that nobody currently knows. “My educated guess would be probably a little bit of both.”
Robert Williams, the University of Lethbridge researcher, noted that generally there’s a downward trend in helpline calls and gambling-specific treatments overall.
“I think this is just a blip on top of that trend and it represents problem gamblers wanting to do something because of the COVID lockdown,” he says.
I contacted a few Halifax-area gambling counsellors to see if I could gather some feedback on what they’re seeing in their own practices. Yakovenko, who offers treatment to gambling addicts, says it’s “exceedingly rare” for a client to come to him with a gambling problem for two reasons. “Cost is the first one. The last thing a gambler losing money can afford is to spend out-of-pocket to see a psychologist,” he says. (Proposed expansion of provincial medical service insurance (MSI) coverage to cover psychologist and counsellor visits may change this.)
“The other issue is that individuals with addiction problems, including gambling, tend to not seek treatment, so only one in 10 individuals ever see a counsellor or access treatment. The other 90 percent suffer in silence.” (This number has been virtually unchanged in the past decade, when the 2011 Responsible Gaming Strategy outlined a similar figure.)
Elizabeth Stephen, a Halifax-area counseling therapist who specializes in gambling addiction, says that even in the past, when gambling addiction treatment had a higher profile in the province, “we never saw many” people with gambling problems in treatment. She’s seen mixed results during COVID-19.
“I certainly know clients who did stop. It was great, but some of them moved on to online gambling,” she says. One client who stopped gambling is back again, having switched from VLTs to online slots and they’re “in far more trouble,” she adds.
“I’ve got a couple of clients that definitely stopped because they were closed. I’ve not heard from them. I take not hearing from them that they’re doing okay, but you never know, right? Sometimes people stay away for several months and then they go back [to gambling] again.”
Like Yakovenko, she says formal research into Nova Scotia’s at-risk and problem gamblers is the only thing which will provide certainty to understand how this natural experiment unfolded. (When it comes to the question of why calls to the Gambling Support Network increased, she notes that part of the increase may be due to increased marketing she’s noticed for the GSN.)
“We can’t fully learn about the impact of COVID-19 and the impact of online introduction of online slots and casino games unless we do a thorough, proper surveillance right now, which has not been done now in years, in Nova Scotia.”
WHERE ARE WE GOING?
There’s no particular ideological bent to gambling policy in Nova Scotia. Over the years, Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments have made decisions both enhancing and limiting the scope of gambling in the province. It’s tough to predict exactly what Tim Houston’s PCs will do with some of the options ahead of them.
On one hand, there’s been major attention put on mental health and addictions by both parties in power this year. The 2021-22 budget for mental health and addictions care grew to a record $336.5 million this fiscal year, and the Liberals created an office of mental health and addictions described by former premier Iain Rankin as providing “the coordination across agencies, departments and partners to improve programs, access and health outcomes.”
The PCs rode to a majority government focusing on health care, including their own suite of mental health plans which premier Tim Houston promises will all come to fruition. These include publicly funded universal mental health care, a mental health crisis line and attracting new mental health practitioners to the province. But these don’t specifically guarantee any priority or developments for treating gambling addiction. (Elizabeth Stephen isn’t surprised there’s no mention. The government has “totally been successful at making gambling invisible,” she says. “And so I don't think they want to lose that invisibility because they make so much money off gambling and it's not obvious in everyone's face the costs of it.”)
In fact, the January 2021 closure of the underused government-affiliated non-profit Gambling Awareness Nova Scotia, was a step back. Funded by a cut of VLT revenues as well as by the NSGC, the organization received criticism for distributing only a small fraction of funding for grants toward gambling research and awareness. Originally, the 2011 Responsible Gaming Strategy said GANS would be integrated “into a so-called centre of excellence in gambling research.” Instead, its funds are now reallocated more broadly to mental health issues. While gambling and mental health intersect, this move further obfuscates gambling addiction as its own unique issue. The idea of looking at gambling intersectionally can be turned on its head. The government can look at not only how it interplays with traditional categories of revenue generation or attracting tourists to a patient-focused, mental and public health issue as well.
I contacted premier Tim Houston’s office to see how treating gambling addiction fit into his government's plans for mental health and addictions. I also asked how the mental health and addictions priorities of his government would impact moving forward with the ALC online casino or introducing single-sports betting. By the time of publication, The Coast did not receive answers to these questions.
Nova Scotia’s minister of finance and treasury board, Allan MacMaster, did respond to The Coast with a statement when sent a series of questions. “While the majority of Nova Scotians who gamble do so responsibly, we know there are many who experience harms from gaming,” he said in part.
In a CBC interview earlier this fall, MacMaster expanded on his view of gambling. “There’s always been debate over if you’re going to have gambling, if the government is going to be offering it, what are you going to do to help those who might fall into problem gambling situations and the impact it would have on not only them but their families,” he said.
In his statement to The Coast, MacMaster said no decisions have been made regarding the launch of the online casino or single-sport betting, for which Nova Scotia is the only Atlantic holdout. MacMaster offered no timeline for when these decisions may take place.
“[O]ur deliberations will consider that many Nova Scotians are already participating in these activities through unregulated online platforms,” he continued. “These sites may not offer player protection (payouts may not be guaranteed) and are not always in line with responsible gambling best practices.”
One practice I asked about—if Nova Scotia would also see high-limits betting like on the New Brunswick iCasino—was not directly addressed by the minister in his statement. He also said there are “no plans” to relocate Halifax’s casino. The NSGC notes—emphasis mine—that it’s “not currently considering plans.”
“It is important to note that our government is committed to improving mental health and addiction services in Nova Scotia,” he continued. “Our gaming decisions will not be based solely on revenue generation.”
ON AND ON FOR JOHN
I used to keep spreadsheets of my nights. You know, what I show up with that night, what I leave with and then a third column that shows a plus or minus. And then it’ll total itself at the bottom to show a gain or not for a month. My overall wins and losses vary year-over-year.
But during COVID-19 I haven’t kept them. It kind of fell off because I wasn’t going to the casino, and that’s where the main amount of money was going. We’re nearing the end of the year, so I might start it again in January just to be able to get a picture again. I didn’t want to start again mid-year. Thankfully, I didn’t because they opened and closed and opened and closed.
With online gambling I could play poker tournaments, which was one set amount and I’d play however long the tournament goes until I get kicked out. I could put money up front, and then it felt like I was playing free throughout the tournament. You know, you win a little, you win a lot, but you’re not constantly up, down, up, down. You’re in until you’re out.
I’d say my gambling money and household income blend together. I pretty much run my entire life off of cash. In 2010 I bought a house. Bought vehicles. Bought a Vegas timeshare in 2016—which sucked for the last bit, like I’m paying for this, and I can’t use it. It’s on a payment plan, and there are about 15 co-owners. Now if I win big, it’s pretty much a rental property probably. Or just putting it away so that the kids have a little bit. Having my second kid really brought me perspective. I became more of a saver. I know being a boy, with sports and dirt bikes, my son’s going to be the expensive one. I expect university’s going to go way up and my daughter’s already in double-digits. I don’t know what the current cost is. But I’m assuming it’s more than it cost me, and it’s likely to go up like anything else. I want them to have a nest egg.
I think my partner (who works outside the home too) is just kind of used to my gambling. We haven’t been together the entire time I’ve gambled. She got to miss the struggle days. She gets to benefit from the relaxed days. It’s come up in conversation with my kids a few times. My daughter seems really indifferent about it for the most part. My son, on the other hand, has determined that he’s having his 19th birthday at the casino. Every time we drive past the casino, he asks me when he can go in. He’s always beside me every Sunday while I’m picking my footballs, and to help me. I think he’s literally going to become me.
THE WAY FROM HERE
As unseemly as it feels to admit it, many hard-won lessons learned during the pandemic will be forgotten. It feels like some days, some have already escaped society’s collective memory. This could also prove true for any lessons Nova Scotia might take away related to pandemic-era gambling. But it doesn’t have to, and it shouldn’t.
If you or someone you care about needs help with gambling, reach out to one of the following resources:
Nova Scotia’s Gambling Support Network
Text "GSN" to 1-902-700-7702
Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Crisis Line
John’s is only one story of how a gambler reacted to COVID-19, and of what is seen and heard as an avid participant in the province’s gambling industry. It fascinates me that even for someone like him who is deeply committed to gambling, the province’s decisions heavily impact how he goes about it. For instance, without the casino during COVID-19 he took a step back from his usual gambling, if only briefly. He tells me if the casino moved to Bayers Lake, which is farther for him to travel to than downtown, he’d be less inclined to go to the place he’s described as his second home. When asked if he’d take part in legalized single-sports betting if Nova Scotia adopts it, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Absolutely.”
But would anything make him stop gambling entirely? I was curious. I asked John about this as our conversation wound up, his beer mostly full, mine empty. He said he would stop if his concerns about the economy could be put to rest. The worries he has about university tuition costs or how much homes might cost when his kids are ready to buy. If he felt more secure about this, he told me, then maybe he might stop high-limit gaming and only gamble for entertainment. (I run this idea by Elizabeth Stephen, who is surprised that somebody truly worried about their economic future would risk $5,000 on a casino night, instead of putting it in an investment where they’d have better opportunities for return.)
Nova Scotia has experienced what would have once seemed impossible: an extended break from life with casinos and VLTs. And with a new government in power wanting to double-down on mental health, transformative decisions await which could change this long-neglected part of the province’s makeup—both its role as an economic tool and as a catalyst for addiction. Decisions on further reducing the province’s number of gambling machines. On supporting and facilitating research. On how closely officials listen to that research when crafting policies. On whether they move forward with plans to expand into new gambling avenues. On how much they support gambling addiction initiatives specifically within the broader tent of mental health and addictions. On whether they’ll look to treat gambling more as a health issue going forward than an economic one. These coming decisions will impact John and how he spends his money, and will touch every Nova Scotian—whether they gamble casually, or fall into a population for whom gambling is an addiction.
I don’t place big bets, but I’m banking on the fact that if there are ever going to be significant changes to the province’s gaming industry, it’s now or never.