Quebec should toughen its safeguards on video lottery terminals

Soon after Jean Brochu started spending his lunch pin up casino hour playing video lottery terminals (VLTs), he was losing hundreds of dollars a day. The Quebec City lawyer pin up then began siphoning money from a pinup professional association , pumping every cent into the machines. By the time he was caught, he had embezzled $50,000. Left unemployed and broke, Mr. Brochu was the sole author of his disgrace.

Or was he? People choose their actions, but sometimes clinical addictions may interfere with that moral agency. Mr. Brochu certainly thinks so, and has filed a lawsuit against Loto-Québec, which oversees gambling in the province. His lawsuit is class-action, representing himself and nearly 120,000 other Quebecers who say they became addicted to VLTs. The case, the first of its kind, is being watched carefully by the international gaming industry.

The plaintiffs are asking only $4,863 each, to cover addiction therapy and costs. But though largely symbolic, their suit raises intriguing questions. Does Loto-Québec have a legal obligation to protect gamblers from harming themselves? If not, does it have an ethical responsibility? VLTs generate about $700 million annually for the province. Does this justify the cost of VLTs, namely, the creation of 120,000 addicts?

Known as the crack cocaine of gambling, VLTs are dangerous. Several Quebec coroners, after investigating suicides of compulsive gamblers, have recommended that the machines be adorned with health alerts. Some VLTs already carry innocuous messages such as “Let the game remain a game,” but coroners want explicit warnings that gambling can lead to suicide.

Even people who view gambling as a benign activity should find VLTs repellent. The UFABet machines are designed to give players the illusion of control, by allowing them to press a button that stops the spin. In reality, the result of each spin is predetermined by a computer, programmed to give a payout just often enough to keep you playing — what scientists call partial reinforcement. Behaviour learned under partial reinforcement is very difficult to abandon.

Casino slot machines operate on similar principles, but VLTs are more insidious because you needn’t visit a casino. Quebec’s 14,000 VLTs are scattered in bars and restaurants. As one Montreal anti-VLT activist remarked, “The Nintendo, Genesis, PlayStation generation are natural targets for this type of activity.”

It is probably true that the province was so excited about the money-making capability of VLTs that it neglected to research their unsavoury side effects before introducing them in 1993. Yet that doesn’t mean Mr. Brochu deserves to win his lawsuit. He is an intelligent, educated man and would know that gambling can metastasize into addiction, just as drinking liquor can trigger alcoholism. A victory for Mr. Brochu will encourage copy-cat litigants (say, obese people suing Loblaws for attractive ice cream displays).

But Mr. Brochu does deserve credit for shaming Loto-Québec. The province has announced $17 million to treat and prevent compulsive gambling. Some of that will be spent investigating the effects of VLTs.

There is already plenty of evidence of the danger of VLTs. In a perfect world, Quebec would admit that VLT revenue is tainted money and wean itself off the machines. But with the cash crunch governments face, that’s not going to happen. Instead, Quebec should adopt Ontario’s approach: VLTs are treated a bit like controlled substances and allowed to operate only from locations such as casinos or racetracks. That way, you must go to the machine, rather than the machine — by turning up in neighbourhood pubs — coming to you.

Many people say gambling is a vice. We’ll never rid the world of vice, though by making right choices we can limit our exposure to it.