The Nova Scotia government tacitly dissolved a nonprofit government organization dedicated to funding gambling prevention and research groups and converting the money into a more general mental health pool.
The decision to end gambling awareness in Nova Scotia (GANS) has been criticized by a community group that has received grants through the organization and now faces uncertainty about whether their work will be supported.
"In the middle of COVID … is there no longer a need for this prevention and community awareness-raising work?" said Bruce Dienes, chairman of Gambling Risk Informed Nova Scotia, a nonprofit that aims to reduce the harm to the community associated with gambling. "This is the time when people are most vulnerable."
Some of the funding for GANS was "generated from a percentage of VLT revenue generated by Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation," according to the government website.
The province said in a statement that VLT retailers allocate approximately $ 250,000 annually to support mental health and addiction services.
The province didn't say when the organization was disbanded, but Dienes said he learned about it in the fall and GANS rules were changed in October.
He said the Department of Health and Wellness told him that "new information" had brought about comorbidities in gambling, including depression and anxiety, which warranted a broader allocation of funds.
"The idea that this is new information is ridiculous, we've known that for decades," he said.
VLTs are known as the most addictive form of gambling because of the flashing lights, neon colors, and reinforcement reward method. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)
Dienes believes the province has taken the step to deal with "the profound lack of mental health funding in Nova Scotia".
Nobody from the Department of Health and Wellness was available to speak to CBC about this story.
In a statement, spokeswoman Marla MacInnis confirmed that GANS will be part of the overall mental health and addiction budget – which is around $ 300 million a year.
"Gambling problems are common with other mental health and addiction problems. Because of the stigma, people often seek help with other problems first. It is best to have access to support that works together to address those problems," said MacInnis.
One of the aftermaths of the pandemic has been the restrictions on gambling in Nova Scotia related to public health protocols.
There were no sports games to bet on and many casinos and bars closed. At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown in the spring, counseling therapist Elizabeth Stephen said some of her clients simply stopped gambling.
"It was like a gift to some people who have problems who never really get that break," said Stephen, who lives in Halifax. "Of course it didn't take long."
Elizabeth Stephen, a Halifax-based consultant who specializes in treating people addicted to gambling, says the lockdown didn't mean problematic gamblers automatically turned to using online methods. Some of them just stopped playing. (Photo submitted)
After a second closure in late 2020, the province reopened its Halifax and Sydney casinos, video lottery terminals and First Nations gaming facilities on January 8.
Igor Yakovenko, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, said international data showed that gambling in all forms decreased as things closed globally.
As the restrictions in Nova Scotia eased, Stephen said some of their customers were returning to gambling, but this varied from case to case. In some cases, she said that people who had not gambled in a long time returned to VLTs because of the "grueling stress of COVID".
Yakovenko, a clinical psychologist, said there are many barriers for people to get help, including not knowing where to go in Nova Scotia. He said research suggests harm reduction and prevention are the most effective ways to help people.
"We need public health services and resources that will minimize the development of problems or, if you are already gambling, prevent you from escalating this game of chance," he said.
Earlier this month, CBC News reported that Atlantic Lottery Corporation was preparing to open its online casinos on Nova Scotia and P.E.I. expand which would allow for larger bets than is currently allowed for personal VLTs.
The pandemic is believed to have had a significant negative impact on Atlantic Lottery revenues.
Dienes said the online availability of VLTs violates the province's VLT moratorium, which removes gaming equipment when a bar closes rather than reallocating it.
"They call it the crack cocaine of gambling," he said. "It is appalling to go back to this acknowledgment of the danger of VLTs and slowly get rid of them and amplify them on the Internet with essentially unlimited access. It is completely irresponsible."
Atlantic Lotto opened an online casino for New Brunswick residents in August 2020. An online casino was created in P.E.I. last month and is proposed for Nova Scotia. (CBC)
According to the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation website, there are 2,012 VLTs in the province and 651 VLTs in the Mi & # 39; Kmaw communities.
Both the Nova Scotia Treasury Department and Atlantic Lottery say the implementation of online casino style games in Nova Scotia is still under evaluation. Neither of them gave a timeframe for the decision.
Greg Weston, a spokesman for the Atlantic Lottery, said they regularly consult with responsible gambling experts as they develop new products. He also said it was important to offer a regulated alternative to the 3,000 offshore gambling websites available to Atlantic Canadians.
"One benefit would be to repatriate players who are now playing with illegal offshore providers and to repatriate funds spent on offshore locations to help fund public services for the benefit of Atlantic Canadians," he said in a statement.
Both Yakovenko and Stephen hope that the province will consult experts in the field and use current research to decide whether Atlantic Lottery can switch to an online casino model.
"In my view, the risks far outweigh the gains," said Stephen. "Someone has to lose so we can make money."