The variety store near an east Toronto seniors’ apartment building does brisk business in lottery tickets. The proprietor says he likes the elderly people who come in, sometimes in their bedroom slippers, to take a chance on winning the jackpot. He prefers them to his high school customers trying to purchase cigarettes while underage.

This is a scene repeated at corner stores across the country, making it seem like senior citizens are the new problem gamblers.

Not so, says Jon Kelly, CEO of the Responsible Gambling Council. “In some ways, seniors are the good news story where problem gambling is concerned. Most people who develop a problem are the risk-taking segment of society, the 18- to 24-year-olds. Gambling, like other problematic behaviours, decreases with age. The difficulty for older people is if they lose money they can’t recover, they have no way to increase their income.”

And because problem gamblers have so much to lose — including their homes, savings, good credit rating and even family and friends — it’s important to recognize the difference between responsible social gambling and an addiction.

Profile of a gambler

Kelly says the type of gambling and the demographics of gamblers have changed. “Internet gambling has grown while other forms of gambling are down, such as slots. And younger people (under 35) are gambling more.”

The gambling council’s research shows that more than 60 per cent of Ontarians gamble in one form or another. Frequent activities include ticket lotteries (52.4 per cent), scratch or instant win tickets (24.9 per cent) and casino games and slot machines (23 per cent). Online gambling among 18- to 24-year-olds increased from 1.4 per cent in 2001 to 5.5 per cent in 2005.

Statistics Canada reports that across the country, three-quarters of adults spent money on some form of gambling in 2002. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, it’s estimated that 1.2 million adults (about five per cent of Canadians) were at risk for experiencing problem gambling. Of these, 700,000 were deemed at low risk, 370,000 at moderate risk and 120,000 were already problem gamblers.

According to the study, people “gambling on video lottery terminals (VLTs), known as the crack cocaine of gambling, accounted for a quarter of at-risk gamblers while lottery ticket players had the lowest chance of becoming problem gamblers.”

Signs of a problem

The two biggest factors in identifying a gambling problem are “borrowing money to gamble and gambling as a way of making money,” says Kelly. “The reality is most people don’t make money gambling. They lose, so the chances of winning are low and the chances of depleting savings are high. Our research shows that people who gamble to get money end up worse off.”

Some of the other signs to watch for include: constant focus on gambling (thinking, talking about it, etc.); spending more time or money than you can afford; gambling ever-larger amounts and increasing your debt; using gambling to deal with stress, personal problems, depression or other negative emotions; and hiding your gambling and withdrawing from family or social functions.

Experts are concerned that internet gambling increases the ability to hide the behaviour and makes it highly accessible since you don’t have to leave home for a casino, bar or track.

Poker popular with youth

With the increase in popularity of poker, the Responsible Gambling Council conducted a survey in 2006 that revealed 20 per cent of Ontarians play poker for money, and one in five people surveyed is concerned that a friend or family member may be headed for a gambling problem. More than one-third of people 18 to 34 play poker for money and of these, a quarter play once a week or more.

Contrary to the facts, 16 per cent say they believe playing poker is a good way to earn extra money, while four per cent think they can earn a living playing poker.

Gambling myths

There’s a certain thrill, even romanticism, that surrounds gaming — witness the many movie scenes of glamorous people gathered around the blackjack table or roulette wheel. The gambling council wants to dispel common myths about gambling. These include:

Gambling myths:
  • If I keep gambling, my luck will change and I’ll win back the money I’ve lost.
  • If I play more than one slot machine or poker game at a time, I’ll increase my chances of winning.
  • I have a special strategy that helps me win
  • If I see a certain card coming up frequently in a poker game, I should bet on it because chances are it will come up again very soon.
  • I have a feeling that today is my lucky day; I just know I’m going to win.
What to do

For gamblers, controlling debt is key. To do this, you need to take responsibility for your financial situation and you may want to seek help from a credit counselling service. As well, don’t use gambling as a way to solve your financial troubles. Limit the amount of cash you have access to by having wages direct deposited to your bank account, getting rid of debit cards and cheque books, requiring two signatures for account withdrawals and keeping as little cash on hand as possible.

Family members are directly affected when gambling takes too big a bite out of finances. If someone close to you has a gambling problem, you should consider keeping track of money that is spent or owed to you, getting assets in your name or having joint control of them, not offering to rescue a problem gambler by paying off debts and seeking professional help.

Tips for safer gambling

Experts who work with problem gamblers say you can’t get too preachy or judgmental. There is such a thing as responsible gambling and many people want to choose this route. So, here are some ways to stay on the safe side of the line and keep from becoming a problem statistic.

First, never think of gambling as a way to make money. “People with gambling problems hold the false expectation that they are the ones who will be the big winners,” says Kelly. Only gamble with money you can afford to lose, set limits on money and time for gambling, and don’t gamble to offset emotional problems or when you’re feeling blue.

To find out where you rank on the problem gambling risk scale, you can complete an online assessment, BetCheck, found at the Responsible Gambling Council’s website.

Diana McLaren is a writer in Toronto.