A non-profit arm’s-length government organization that funds gambling prevention and research organizations has been quietly dissolved by the Nova Scotia government, turning the funding back to a more mental health pool.
A Community Group, which receives grants from the organization and which claims that it now has looming uncertainty as to its work, criticizes the decision to end Gambling Awareness Nova Scotia (GANS).
Bruce Dienes, chair of Gambling Risk informed Nova Scotia, a non-profit that aims to reduce the community harms associated with gambling that “In the middle of COVID … isn’t there more of a need to do this prevention work and community awareness work? This is the time when people are most vulnerable.”
Part of the funding for GANS, according to the government’s website, was “generated from a percentage of VLT revenues, matched by the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation.”
In a statement, the province said that VLT retailers provide around $250,000 per year to help mental health and addictions services.
The province was not informed about the dissolution of the organization, but Dienes said that he learned about it in the fall, and in October they updated the GANS regulations.
He said he was told by the Department of Health and Wellness that because of “new information” it had come to realize there are comorbidities with gambling also associated with depression and anxiety, which justified sharing the funds more widely.
He said that “The idea that this is new information is ridiculous, we’ve known this for decades.” Dienes believes the province made the move as a way to deal with the “profound lack of funding for mental health in Nova Scotia.”
Nobody from the Health ministry and Wellness could talk to CBC about this report.
Marla MacInnis, a spokesperson, confirmed in a statement that GANS will become part of the overall mental health and addictions budget — which is roughly $300 million annually — citing changes in the last two decades around gambling and how best to support it.
MacInnis said that “Problem gambling often occurs with other mental health and addictions issues, and due to the stigma, people often initially seek help for other issues. It’s best if people can access support that addresses these issues together.”
The restrictions placed on gambling in Nova Scotia related to public health protocols have been one of the consequences of the pandemic.
No sports games were available to bet on and several casinos and bars had to close. Elizabeth Stephen, counseling therapist, said at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown spring, that her clients just stopped gambling.
Stephen, who is based in Halifax said that “It was like a gift to some people that have problems that never really get that break. Of course, that didn’t last long.”
The province reopened the Halifax and Sydney casinos, video lottery terminals and First Nations gaming establishments on Jan. 8, following a second shutdown late in 2020.
Igor Yakovenko, assistant professor at Dalhousie University, said that international data showed that when things were closed internationally, gambling decreased in all forms.
Stephen said some of her clients returned to gambling as restrictions loosened in Nova Scotia, but it varied case by case. In some cases, because of the “wearing-you-down kind of stress of COVID,” she said that people who had not gambled in a long time returned to VLTs.
Yakovenko, a clinical psychologist, said that there are many challenges for people to get help, including not knowing where to go in Nova Scotia. He said evidence shows that the most successful ways to help people are to the reduction of harm and prevention.
He added that “We need services and public health resources that minimize problems from developing in the first place or, if you’re already gambling, they prevent you from escalating that gambling.”
CBC News reported earlier this month that the Atlantic Lottery Corporation is preparing to expand its online casinos to Nova Scotia and P.E.I., which would allow for bigger bets than what is currently allowed on in-person VLTs.
Dienes said that having online VLTs available goes against the VLT moratorium of the province, which eliminates the gaming devices if a bar shuts down instead of reallocating them.
He said that “They call them the crack cocaine of gambling. To backtrack on that acknowledgment of the danger of VLTs and to be slowly getting rid of them, and to move to amplify that on the internet with essentially unlimited access is appalling. It’s totally irresponsible.”
According to the website of the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation, the province has 2,012 VLTs and the communities of Mi’Kmaw have 651 VLTs.
The introduction of online casino-style games in Nova Scotia is still being assessed, both by the Nova Scotia Department of Finance and the Atlantic Lottery. Neither provided a timeframe for when to make a decision.
Greg Weston, an Atlantic Lottery spokesman, said that when developing new products, they frequently consult with responsible gambling experts. He also said he believes it is necessary to give Atlantic Canadians a regulated alternative to the 3,000 offshore gambling websites available.
He said in a statement that “One benefit would be to repatriate players now playing with illegal offshore providers, and by doing so repatriating money being spent on offshore sites to help fund public services to benefit Atlantic Canadians.”
Both Yakovenko and Stephen hope that the province will consult with experts in the field and will use current research to decide whether to allow the Atlantic Lottery to move to an online casino model.
Stephen added that “From my perspective, the risks far outweigh the profits. Someone has to lose in order for us to make money.”