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.

{3} Thoughts on “When Governments Are the Addicts

  1. I’m not against people choosing to gamble. I’m against the government being in the gambling business.

    We’ll never lose state gambing here, though. They managed to tie education funding in to lottery revenue, so anyone who suggests shutting it down is labeled as anti-education.

  2. Wouldn’t you agree that this kind of labelling is a logical fallacy referred to in philosophy as a “forced dilemma,” equivalent to labelling opponents to the war in Iraq as “supporters of terrorists.” If debate on important issues has degenerated to this kind of flawed reasoning, then we’re really in trouble.

    This is a tough issue. On the one hand, I believe in giving individuals choice. That is a fundament of a free society. On the other hand, governments’ addiction to gambling is deplorable. However, governments, ultimately, can be held accountable to the people whereas the private sector cannot. Take alcohol (at least here in Canada): it’s regulated by virtue of being sold via a (provincial) government-run commission. At least in theory, some of the profits can be funnelled back into alcohol rehab programs, whereas that would likely be more difficult to achieve were the sale of alcohol be entirely privatized. Hence I believe governments’ close involvement in gambling is necessary.

    There’s a balance there somewhere. I wish it could be found without oversimplying the intentions of proponents on either side of the issue. I prefer having the choice not to gamble as opposed to having the state telling me I can’t gamble.

  3. “Wouldn’t you agree that this kind of labelling is a logical fallacy…”

    Absolutely! That’s what’s so infuriating about it.

    There’s a question in here of how far government should go to protect us from ourselves. They have rules about what drugs we can take, how fast we can drive, and wearing seatbelts. While I might like to shift the line in a few places, that there is such a line is a good idea.

    I like that a few cities in Oregon have finally lifted the ban on social gambling. It’s now legal to play poker for money in private homes throughout the state, and you can even play poker for money in bars and other public places in some cities, as long as the bar isn’t taking a rake.

    I’d like to see the government keep an eye on gambling, without being in the business of gambling. Put a tax on it, if that will help, and funnel that money into recovery programs.

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