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Trevor Hancock: Gambling industry needs stronger regulation to protect public health



Gambling opportunities continue to expand in spite of evidence of harms from mental-health effects to financial problems

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto just released a report on another industry that in ­various ways harms health — gambling.

Not only can it be addictive and harmful to health and social wellbeing, its impact is disproportionately experienced by low-income people, which makes it unjust.

Statistics Canada reported in 2022 that in 2018 — troublingly, the last year for which there is national data, it seems — almost 70 per cent of Canadian adults gambled.

Half of all adults bought lottery or raffle tickets, ­one-third bought instant lottery tickets or online games, one in eight used video lottery terminals, while one in 12 of us bet at casino tables or on sports.

The StatsCan report noted that “1.6 percent of ­past-year gamblers were at a moderate-to-severe risk of problems related to gambling.”

This equates to more than 300,000 people, but the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health report notes that “for every person experiencing gambling ­problems, another 5 to 10 people are negatively affected, with harms to mental health and financial security especially common.”

So problem gambling actually affects 1.5 million to 3 million Canadians.

Problem gambling is classed as an addictive ­disorder. The risks problem gamblers face include “depression and suicide, bankruptcy, family breakup, domestic abuse, assault, fraud, theft, and even ­homelessness,” according to the Canadian Safety ­Council.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health study reports that “people with gambling disorder had 15 times the suicide mortality of the general ­population.”

While a smaller proportion of low-income people gambled, compared to high-income people, they were more than twice as likely to be at risk.

And worryingly, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health study reported that while 1.2 per cent of adults in Ontario are experiencing or are at risk for ­gambling problems, the rate is almost 50 per cent higher in ­high-school students.

But gambling is also immensely profitable, both to the gambling industry and to governments that both operate and tax gambling.

So it is not surprising that “gambling ­opportunities have been increasing globally” and that is true in Canada, too; sports gambling was legalized in 2021 and in addition, the provinces have expanded legal online gambling.

This expansion is occurring, notes the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health report, in spite of ­evidence that “in general as gambling opportunities increase, gambling-related harms tend to increase.”

However, as a source of government revenue, ­gambling is unjust. First, only two-thirds of us play and pay, and second, it is a regressive form of taxation.

Low-income people who gamble spend ­proportionately more of their annual income on ­gambling than do higher-income people. As the CAMH report notes, “to the extent that gambling policy fails to prevent (or even facilitates) harm, gambling policy can exacerbate health inequity.”

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health report comes at the same time as a growing concern with sports gambling, especially among young people, and with the amount of advertising for gambling.

The centre’s report is clear on the role of ­advertising: “The purpose of advertising is to drive consumption, and gambling is no exception,” the report states, adding that “there is a causal ­relationship between exposure to gambling advertising and … actual gambling activity.”

Moreover, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health notes, “Children and youth, as well as those already experiencing gambling problems, are ­especially susceptible to these effects.”

Unfortunately, the centre adds, “There do not appear to be rules or guidelines in Canada governing the ­volume of gambling ads.”

Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and a professor emeritus of sports policy at the University of Toronto, is chair of a campaign to ban ads for gambling.

Interviewed on CBC Radio’s On the Coast on March 27, he stated: “Since the legalization of sports betting in Canada, there has been a tsunami of ads and it’s clear they have encouraged more and more children and youth and other vulnerable people to bet, and to bet well beyond their means, and to create very difficult situations.”

The campaign’s white paper (available at ­ is clear. It “calls for the ­prohibition of ads for gambling in the same way that ads for tobacco and cannabis have been restricted.”

This should be part of a broader approach ­recommended by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health report, to take a public-health approach to gambling by focusing on stronger regulation of the industry, rather than just encouraging gamblers to be responsible.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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