Paul Isaacs played slot machines, roulette and baccarat. He played so much that, in an obsessive spree lasting less than two years, he lost more than $1.2-million.
Casinos, in turn, rewarded Mr. Isaacs with Rolex and TAG Heuer wristwatches, theatre tickets and limousine rides. And when his home sustained smoke damage, he and his family stayed free at the Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ont., for 21/2 months, meals included.
It's a card casinos play often. Government-owned gaming emporiums are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to provide gamblers with "comps" - from hotel rooms to hockey tickets to cruises - feeding players' habits and leading some to financial ruin.
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation - part of a four-month Globe and Mail investigation - show annual spending on comps in Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island totals more than $405-million, with a large part of it - $276-million - concentrated in four resort casinos.
Instead of trying to restrain problem gamblers, the casinos reward them - making big losers feel like big winners and fuelling a $13.67-billion business nationwide. Problem gamblers account for one-third of revenues, studies show, and government-operated casinos could find out who they are.
Their losses are recorded on player's cards that are inserted into slots or handed to dealers.
Governments have made some efforts to curb compulsive behaviour. In Ontario, the government spent $39-million in fiscal 2009 on treatment, research and prevention of problem gambling, with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation adding a further $9.6-million on responsible-gambling initiatives (the highest figure in North America, it says). But the same year, it laid out $558-million on marketing and promotion of casinos, more than half in comps.
Mr. Isaacs, a retirement-home manager, and his mother are now suing the OLG and Falls Management Company over his financial disaster: His truck was repossessed, he was evicted from his home and he applied for social assistance.
"There's a huge societal interest here that needs to be looked at and protected, more so than it has been up to now," said Mr. Isaacs's lawyer, Roger Yachetti. "Governments can become addicted to the income from gambling and not enough attention is paid to the evils."
In fact, 3.5 per cent of Ontario adults said in a 2006-2007 survey that they had a problem with gambling the previous year. Before casinos mushroomed in the mid-1990s, only 2.1 per cent of Ontario adults said they had a gambling problem at any point in their lives, according to research by Robert Williams, the Lethbridge co-ordinator of the Alberta Gaming Research Institute.
Problem gambling is recognized as an impulse-control disorder, often referred to as a hidden illness because there are no obvious physical signs or symptoms as in drug or alcohol addiction. But compulsive gamblers do tend to be prone to addiction: 70 per cent are smokers and 25 per cent have issues with alcohol. These gamblers are unable to stop playing even when it hurts them or loved ones.
The siren song of comps doesn't help. "They send you stuff all the time like 'Free buffet lunch,' or 'Spend $20, get $20 free'… they are constantly luring you back in," said Elizabeth Stewart-Patterson, 39, of Halifax, who filed for bankruptcy in which gambling was a factor. "They are monitoring what you are spending but they don't once come over and say, 'Do you think maybe you've put enough money in that machine?' "
Throwing gas on a fire
Four resort casinos - two in Niagara Falls, one in Orillia and another in Windsor - are the only ones in Canada that provide the biggest perk of all: house credit. From 2000 to May, 2009, they bankrolled 5,680 gamblers with $86.8-million, according to a Freedom of Information request.
That means big-time gamblers who qualify had an average of $15,469 in available credit from January to May of 2009, and $27,619 in all of 2008. Those figures, Dr. Williams said, are "pretty huge."
"You are throwing gasoline on a fire when you further extend house credit and lines of credit to people who've presumably maxed out their credit cards and ATM withdrawals."