Few gamblers cause majority of problems

A small percentage of individuals account for the large majority of issues surrounding gambling in the province of Alberta.

University of Lethbridge researchers from the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Department of Native American Studies concluded in a recent study that only 10 per cent of gamblers account for 80 per cent of all provincial gambling revenues.

The academics sifted through more than 40 years of information, data and reports and then conducted their own in-depth research to determine the long-term effects of gambling in the province. Their study suggests that the not-for-profit groups and community organizations that raise money through gambling get minor economic benefits but also endure minor economic costs.

Roughly $2.5 billion annually is taken into government coffers through gambling and dispensed to charitable groups through various agencies and government ministries.

Not surprisingly, the researchers also found that there are major challenges in the form of problem gambling.

"A small percentage of individuals are responsible for a majority of the issues surrounding gambling in general — and their actions directly or indirectly affect eight to 10 per cent of the province's population," says Dr. Robert Williams, one of the study's authors. "That's more than 300,000 people. Of that population, we estimate that 10 per cent of gamblers contribute 80 per cent of all provincial gambling revenues. These people can be involved in problem gambling to a point where they are affected by bankruptcy, divorce, unemployment, crime and, tragically, suicide."

Williams says gambling appears to be an important contributor to overall bankruptcy and suicide rates in the province.

"The challenge is that despite a number of controls and programs, and well-regulated legalized gambling which has significantly decreased non-regulated illegal gambling, the bottom line is that a small percentage of problem gamblers are responsible for the majority of health, social and criminal problems associated with gambling."

The researchers also confirmed that the legal availability of gambling is only partly responsible for the prevalence of problem gambling, which existed to some extent prior to the introduction of legalized gambling.

"The relationship between legal gambling availability and problem gambling prevalence in Alberta is weak," says Jennifer Arthur, a Health Sciences masters degree candidate and project manager.

"We found that problem gambling is only partly responsible for these serious consequences, because the people involved had other conditions such as alcohol or drug dependency that were triggered by the availability of gambling. What we really want to draw attention to is, in addition to the percentage of gamblers who have significant personal and social problems, the ethical challenge of government and charity gambling revenue being derived from a very small percentage of the population which includes a disproportionate percentage of problem gamblers."

The news, however, is not all bad, as gambling does provide its benefits, particularly to First Nations communities.

"We found that gambling has provided an additional leisure option that is fairly well patronized, and legalized gambling also appears to provide minor employment benefits," says Dr. Yale Belanger, a Native American Studies researcher and a co-author of the report.

"The main economic benefits concern the fact that gambling appears to create additional economic activity without any obvious negative impacts on other businesses, and gambling leads to a very small increase in the value of infrastructure such as buildings and roads, for instance."

Belanger adds that, at a community level, there are significant economic benefits to First Nations communities that host casinos, because of their ability to retain a large part of the revenue.

"We estimate that First Nations in 2009-2010, through their charities and the First Nations Development Fund, had access to more than $158 million for local programming, economic development and infrastructure projects, to name a few areas this money can be used for."

The three-year study was funded by the Alberta Gaming Research Institute, at a cost of $685,000. In addition to Williams, Belanger and Arthur, 10 students were employed while conducting the research.