When Governments Are the Addicts

VLTsI might as well state my position up front: I have never liked Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs), nor the provincial governments’ involvement in them as so-called regulators. We’ve had casinos in Nova Scotia for over a decade now, which mostly house VLTs. I can’t stand the noise in casinos — the constant *ding* *ding* *ding* coming from all over the place — a dislike all my friends are aware of.

One time, much to his surprise, one of my friends spotted me in the Halifax casino on a Sunday afternoon some 12 years ago.

— I never thought I’d see you in this place!” he said to me.
— Well …I’m not really here …or not for what you think.”

I turned to the VLT next to which we were standing, stuck a $10 bill into it, and pressed the button to cash in …and out came $10 in quarters. “Nothing except the casino is open in this blasted province on Sunday, yet I need to get a few loads of laundry done,” I explained. “This is the only place I could get quarters.” My friend laughed, thinking my little scheme quite ingenious.

Provincial governments rake in big bucks from VLTs, which, in this province, can be located in bars as well as casinos. VLTs have become one of the province’s largest sources of revenue; consequently, governments like VLTs a lot because they’re an alternate to taxation. But of the millions of dollars governments earn each year from VLTs, only a tiny fraction is redirected towards gambling addiction programs. Yet the number of people who have become addicted to gambling is staggering. Some, after digging themselves into a hopeless debt hole, have even committed suicide.

Now the Nova Scotia government is thinking about reducing the number of VLTs in the province, but some members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) are calling for a plebiscite so that Nova Scotians themselves can decide if VLTs should be banned. However, I think that, based on how Nova Scotians rejected the idea of Sunday shopping last fall and how citizens in neighbouring New Brunswick voted again a VLT ban a few years ago, they would vote in favour of keeping them. Moreover, it’s clear the biggest addict of them all is the provincial government, for in its consideration of reducing the number of VLTs in Nova Scotia, it has largely ignored the recommendations of senior advisors on problem gambling.

Where I become conflicted, though, is that, in wanting a ban in VLT, am I tacitly supporting a nanny state? Am I subscribing to the idea that ordinary citizens are incapable of determining what’s good or bad from themselves? In other words, am I encouraging an encroachment on free will because of a (sizeable) minority for whom gambling has become a problem?

In all of this, though, I can’t help but find a great deal of irony. In Nova Scotia, you can’t shop on Sunday; however, you can do anything else, including gambling. So it’s painfully obvious to me that this dichotomy is the result of the government’s own addition to gambling, where Sunday shopping, unlike gambling, would likely have little to no effect on the provincial coffers.