Nova Scotia has given the go-ahead to open new online casinos, drawing criticism from anti- gambling groups and concerned politicians. In August of last year, the Atlantic Lottery Corporation opened an online casino in New Brunswick and now wants to expand to other provinces, setting its sights on Prince Edward Island. Brick-and-mortar casinos have struggled to maintain revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Casino Nova Scotia seeing 90% fewer visitors in that time. The Atlantic Lotto anticipates that online casinos will help recoup that lost revenue, but critics say the move to legitimize online gambling will increase the risk of problem gambling among players.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Provinces that offer online casino services are expected to share the cost of developing the online games, says a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation. It seems like a small price to pay compared to the $80 million that the Atlantic Lottery Corporation told its shareholders an online casino could generate over seven years. Still, the decision to move forward with more online casinos has experts worried, with several red flags raising concerns about ethics and motivations.
Making a Change
Land-based casinos across the country have been financially affected by the pandemic, but records from the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation stretch back nearly 15 years documenting the money troubles at Casino Nova Scotia. Bob MacKinnon, the CEO of Nova Scotia Gaming, revealed that since the casino’s peak in 2006, they “probably did about $75 million in revenue, and then over time it decreased by 30 percent.” He continued, saying, “So certainly that wouldn’t have been sustainable.” Talks of moving the casino away from its current waterfront location to try and bolster business were in motion before the start of the pandemic. Now, with relocation efforts on hold, the government seems to be looking at online casinos as a more sustainable long-term revenue stream. In the opinion of former P.E.I. finance minister Heath MacDonald, the timing couldn’t be worse. “We’ve just lived through nine months of a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental illness, and the numbers are increasing daily,” MacDonald remarked in a CBC News interview. “And I think addictions was a topic of many discussions for many people — all Islanders, many people, many families.
Big Bets and Bigger Questions
Bettors may not be able to play online with live dealers on the ALC New Brunswick site, but there are slots, bingo, and table games available–all with high limits. The online slots allow players to place maximum bets 40 times higher than what is allowed at in-person video lotteries. Chris Keevill, CEO of Atlantic Lotto, says the higher limits are necessary to compete with offshore operators who often won’t enforce any limits on bets. Keevill also cites potential revenue lost to these competitors as one of the reasons provincial online gambling sites are overdue and essential. “We don’t think that they operate with the best interests and safety of Atlantic Canadians in mind,” he said of offshore operators. Around $100 million leaves Atlantic Canada, according to the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, spent on gambling sites that operate from outside of the country. When questioned about how the ALC estimates that number, Keevill said that it’s”very difficult to track.”
Risk of Addiction
Will Shead, a board member of Gambling Risk Informed Nova Scotia (GRINS), says that the potential for harm is high and that there are few enforceable boundaries for online gambling that will keep bettors safe. “We don’t really know what effect this is going to have on people. You can make arguments and say this is how it’s going to work, but it could potentially be disastrous for people to have access to such high betting limits online,” he says. The Chair of GRINS, Bruce Dienes, says that the Atlantic Lotto’s video lottery offerings online also go defy the Video Lottery Terminals Moratorium Act, which prevents the addition of more VLTs to the province. “They call them the crack cocaine of gambling,” he says. “To backtrack on that acknowledgment of the danger of VLTs and to be slowly getting rid of them, and to move to
amplifying that on the internet with essentially unlimited access is appalling. It’s totally irresponsible.”
Disappearance of GANS
Some critics have also raised alarm over the government’s decision to dissolve Gambling Awareness Nova Scotia (GANS) within the last year, a provincial non-profit aimed at funding research and gambling prevention. Marla MacInnis said in a statement that the funds will be reallocated to the general allowance for mental health and addictions, a budget of about $300 million annually.
“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,” MacInnis said.