Across Ontario, desperate problem gamblers surround casinos

WATCH ABOVE: Self-excluded gamblers are concentrated near casinos and racetracks, indicating that living close to a gambling opportunity could have led them to develop a serious problem. Mark McAllister reports.

“To some degree, I probably wanted to get caught,” Christina explains.

Torn between her overwhelming urge to gamble at the slots at the Windsor casino, which had wiped out her modest savings and destroyed her credit, and her determination to stop, the 50-year-old Windsor woman had volunteered to be banned from all racetracks and casinos in the province. She agreed to be charged with trespassing if she entered any of them.

A facial recognition system at the casino was on the watch for Christina, and over 17,000 Ontario residents have signed the same agreement.

But lonely and overwhelmed, having lost an inner argument with herself, she didn’t find it hard to slip back in.

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“I was going in there regularly for two years before they caught me,” she remembers. “When I went in there I’d put my head down, or be on the phone, or something when I went in, so they can’t see your whole face. Sunglasses.”

Ironically, she got in as long as she did because the guards were used to her as a familiar face, although she was supposed to be banned – on the day she was caught, there was a new security guard who was doing things by the book.

“On that particular day I just strolled right in,” she remembers. She was quickly intercepted and charged with trespassing.

“It saved me from self-destructing, because now the reality that there is a consequence of going in there has become real, after going in there for two years and not getting caught.”

What is problem gambling? The point where an exciting hobby becomes a life-eating compulsive nightmare is debatable, but the 17,860 people who have volunteered for Ontario’s casino self-exclusion program are problem gamblers by any definition.

“In some cases people won’t self-exclude until they’ve ruined every financial avenue available to them,” explains Nigel Turner, an expert in gambling psychology at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

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“They’ve basically maxed out any credit cards they have, they have lines of credit, they’ve borrowed against their house, they possibly have multiple mortgages that they’ve drawn against their house. In the extreme case they could be several hundred thousand dollars in debt at that point.”

Others haven’t gotten to that point, he says: “They say to themselves: ‘Well, I’m gambling more than I really want to, maybe I should take a break for a while.’ It varies from one individual to the next.”

All over Ontario, self-excluded gamblers are concentrated near casinos and racetracks, which implies that living close to a gambling opportunity led them to develop a serious gambling problem.

Self-excluded gamblers

Windsor and Thunder Bay are extreme cases.

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The downtown Windsor postal code that houses the mammoth Caesar’s casino is also home to 248 self-excluded gamblers, which is just over 1 per cent of the population. In Windsor, self-excluded gamblers cluster around the casino site, with fewer of them found the further you get from downtown.

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Self-excluded gamblers: Windsor

Thunder Bay shows a similar pattern – the postal code of the OLG casino there has 281 self-excluded gamblers, also over 1 per cent of the population. Once again, problem gamblers become more frequent closer to the casino.

Self-excluded gamblers: Thunder Bay

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The pattern is common across Ontario. Casinos in Sarnia, Brantford, Niagara Falls, Gananoque, Sault Ste. Marie and Orillia, and racetracks in Ottawa, Ajax, London and Woodstock are all surrounded by people who are so desperate not to enter them again that they’re hoping the threat of arrest will counterbalance their own compulsion.

The GTA’s two pockets of self-excluded gamblers are around the Woodbine and Ajax racetracks.

“There’s been a fair bit of research that shows that people within half an hour of a casino venue are more likely to develop problems than people further away,” Turner says.

“The pattern of self-excluders would be what I would expect, that people who have so little control of their gambling that they try to use self-exclusion to try to control their gambling are more likely to live close to a casino.“

“When you have more gambling venues available, I think that you’re going to have more people experiment with gambling, and when you have more people experimenting, a certain percentage of them are going to develop problems.”

People signing up for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s self-exclusion program are photographed, and acknowledge that they could be arrested and charged with trespassing if they enter any Ontario gambling facility for the length of the exclusion, which can be indefinite. Their faces are entered in a biometric facial recognition system. If they try to re-enter a casino, their exclusion can be lengthened.

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Between 1,500 and 2,000 self-excluded gamblers a year are caught trying to enter Ontario casinos, says Paul Pellizzari, the OLG’s director of social responsibility.

Some have serious problems, but others don’t, Pellizzari says:

“Someone can go and lose a thousand dollars, and that might upset them, and they wouldn’t screen as a problem gambler, but it might kind of freak them out that they lost this much money, and they might join self-exclusion. We have to be careful about putting hard labels on people who are in the program.”

Pellizzari points to Ontario’s $52-million budget for curbing, or alternatively treating, problem gambing. Part of that money goes to training casino staff to recognize self-destructive behaviour and suggest that people take a break, or go home:

“Somebody who is making certain kinds of comments, who is showing signs of agitation, who is maybe playing for an extended period of time, maybe has fatigue impairment.”

Areas near casinos and racetracks also see more gambling in general, measured by participation in OLG’s Winners Circle loyalty program. In the Innisfil postal code around the Georgian Downs racetrack, for instance, 10 per cent of the population has signed up for Winners Circle, far higher than the surrounding area.

Winners Circle participants

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The province’s highest Winners Circle participation rate is in a Sarnia neighbourhood not far from the casino there.

(Niagara Falls and Windsor, whose casinos aren’t run by OLG, have almost no Winners Circle participation.)

The data was obtained from OLG through access-to-information requests.

“Where there is a community with a casino, there is a community with players that support the casino, so you’re going to see a distribution of people in the Winner’s Circle program, and you’re going to see a distribution of people in the self-exclusion program.” Pellizzari explains.

The data emerges as Toronto debates expanding gambling at the Woodbine racetrack in the city’s northwest.

Last Tuesday, the city’s Executive Committee voted in favour of expansion after studying a report from acting city manager John Livey, which predicted that gambling expansion would mean an increase of up to $500 million in gambling revenue and 1-1,400 new jobs at the site, which is in a depressed area of the city’s inner suburbs.

However, the city’s medical officer of health, David McKeown, wrote in a separate report that “the best approach to preventing problem gambling in Toronto is to prevent expansion of gambling access.”

McKeown wrote that the neighbourhood around the Woodbine site “has a significantly lower average household income than many other neighbourhoods or Toronto as a whole. This makes this community more vulnerable to the impacts of problem gambling.”

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“You can become addicted to anything that is very strongly positively reinforcing,” Turner says. “When you take a drug you get high, and that high is what makes it addictive. If it makes you feel good – it’s a potential addiction. The thrill of winning at a casino is amazing – some people will say it’s the best feeing they’ve ever experienced, way out of line with the amount of money.“

“If somebody has a really bad drinking problem, all their drinking episodes are going to go badly. But for the gambler who has a big gambling problem, occasionally they win.

“And they’ve bet so much that when they do win, they win a lot, and that can really undermine any treatment efforts that they’ve made, and attempts at self-control. If some guy who’s chronically losing money comes home with $10,000, and suddenly his wife says ‘That’s great!,’ he’s a hero all of a sudden.”

By the time people seek out treatment for gambling addiction, their lives are often in shreds, says Michelle Hatton, a problem gambling counsellor at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare in Windsor.

“It’s the depression, the hopelessness, the sense of despair, accompanied by relationship issues.”

“Spouses are threatening to leave, if they haven’t already left, and financial devastation – credit cards are maxed out, lines of credit. In the residential program, we’re seeing more and more people who coming to us homeless.”

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The seriousness of the gambler’s financial problems can be hidden from family members, she explains.

“If I’m married to somebody who has a gambling problem, and he manages the finances, and I don’t look at the bank account, if I’m not privy to some of the stuff, there are lots of hidden financial things that are going on: loans that have been taken out, life insurance policies that may have been cashed in, lines of credit that families don’t know about, mortgages that they thought had been paid off and aren’t.”

Hôtel-Dieu’s problem gambling program, which marked its 10-year anniversary last week, started a few months after a major expansion of the Windsor casino in 2005. Since then, over 850 people have used it.

“It’s just very, very intense and very emotional for everybody who’s there,” says Christina, who was in Hôtel-Dieu’s residential program when Global News spoke to her. ”Everybody breaks down and cries at different points.”

Christina didn’t want her full name to be used for this story “because of the stigma … It’s not something I want my employer or professional colleagues to be aware of.”

She ended up having to file a consumer proposal with her creditors, a process that has much in common with bankruptcy.

“I didn’t lose everything, but I was headed on that path.”


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