BC gambling industry poses problems for the vulnerable

“Maggie” was one of my clients during my 16 years as an addictions counsellor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Soft-spoken, with a surprisingly sly sense of humour she shared with those she knew well, this 37-year-old mother of three struggled with a number of addictions,  including one to the local bingo hall.

For Maggie, going to bingo was like a drug: she could simply have a good time for a while and not have to think about the many hardships in her life. Two or three afternoons a week, Maggie could be found at her usual table with her “bingo-buddies” and her two youngest children surrounding her, enjoying a couple of hours of blissful camaraderie. Sometimes she won a few dollars here and there, which is, of course, what kept her going back. But the amount of money she needed to spend in order to win those few extra bucks often created major chaos in her life. Too often she lost the funds she would have been spending on rent, food or clothing for her children.

Same story for her bingo friends.

One day at a time, one afternoon at a time, Maggie and her friends valiantly held on to their hope - the desperate hope - that today would be the day that the big win would finally happen. The day they could feel good about themselves.  Sadly, in all the time I knew Maggie, that day never came for any of them. 

When it comes to human nature, it takes a lot to surprise me. As a therapist with over 20 years’ experience working with clients who are struggling with various addictive behaviours, as well as other issues that cause profound unhappiness, I’ve seen both the vast pain people can experience as well as the remarkable and inspiring recoveries they can make.

But every once in a while, something comes along that I just can’t seem to wrap my head around.  As I watch the ways our BC government is pushing gambling - and I do mean pushing - in the same way a drug dealer would push drugs, I am not only baffled but also deeply concerned. 

In the name of “fun”, “winning” and “entertainment,” many people are being caught in the grip of something more and more sinister. The impact of this is being felt not only by the gamblers themselves, but also by those who love them and depend on them for their well-being.

The gambling industry in BC seems to be shamelessly pimping its goods more heavily to its most vulnerable players. Access to gambling has been made even easier to those who have grave problems just saying no. People don’t even have to leave the comfort of their own homes anymore. Those who are out of work, for example, and frantically worried about money now have the BC Liberals’ eager assistance.  For their convenience, there is an online gambling site open 24 hours a day, as well as weekly lotteries with outrageously huge pay-offs, the kind of money that exquisite dreams are made of. Gamblers are now even allowed to charge up to $9,999 per week on their credit cards to pay for their addiction. Who wouldn’t be tempted?

But where is the logic of encouraging people who can barely afford to pay their rent or feed their children to spend that kind of money on gambling?  Where is the government’s sense of responsibility to the citizens it serves?

Instead, the BC Lottery Corp ads on TV regale us with tantalizing tales that will never materialize for most of us: huge lottery wins, shots of us flipping the bird to our boss as we walk out the door of our dead-end loser job; sipping champagne onboard our new yacht, and wearing a captain’s hat – the official headgear of society’s winners!

Will we ever be shown a more fitting commercial depicting the catastrophic events that occur in people’s lives when they lose, over and over and over again? The kinds of scenes I’ve witnessed too many times? Not likely.

And no one is immune from the seduction – not the welfare Mom. Not the CEO.

Another of my clients, “Vance,” a 56-year-old head of his own previously lucrative business, found himself taken in by the glitz and glamour of la dolce vita. He had enjoyed playing poker with his buddies for many years on a weekly basis, but when the casinos came to Vancouver, all bets were off. It became easy for him to sit in brightly lit rooms with no windows for hours at a stretch, drinking a little too much at the bar and compulsively over-spending at the blackjack tables, conveniently forgetting that he had a wife, children, and employees who wondered where he was and what he was doing with his time when he should have been at home or at work. When Vance wasn’t in the casino, he could be found glued to the blackjack games on his computer screen in the privacy of his own home, still isolating himself from his family and neglecting his business.

Things were not looking good for Vance. Business was going downhill and so were his relationships with his wife and kids. So he made a courageous choice: he put himself on the self-exclusion list at his two favourite casinos.

For a while, Vance was able to stay away, believing that he wouldn’t be allowed in anyway. But on one of his bleaker days, when nothing seemed to be going right for him, he found his car in the parking lot of a prominent downtown casino, with himself inside it, jonesing for a game of chance. He hesitantly walked up to the entrance and, to his great surprise, was allowed in. It was then that he learned how ineffective the self-exclusion lists are – most of the time no one monitors them, rendering them virtually useless.

Could this be because the BC Liberals want Vance, and those like him who struggle with an addiction to gambling, to come back in? Do they know that for most of the Vances of this world, it’s only a matter of time before they do?

The government’s addiction to gambling and the revenue it brings in is now, well and truly, out of hand. Most of my addicted clients are not in as much denial as our government appears to be. If our elected officials want to give me a call – maybe I could book them an appointment for counselling.

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