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The province's lottery corporation wants more British Columbians to take up gaming, as the government that once vowed as party policy to halt the growth of gambling in B.C. reaps ever increasing revenue from it.

"They are becoming gaming crackheads," NDP Crown corporations critic Guy Gentner charged yesterday, noting that government income from gambling in the province for the coming fiscal year is projected to soar to more than $1-billion for the first time.

By 2009-2010, the B.C. Lottery Corp. (BCLC) plans to swell government coffers by $1.142-billion from gambling proceeds, a three-year increase of 15 per cent and more than double what the province earned from gaming when the Liberals came to power with their anti-gambling rhetoric in 2001.

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The government-owned Lottery Corp. is also out to increase public participation in legal gambling, including lottery ticket purchases, to 68 per cent of the adult population from 65 per cent over the next three years.

"Rather than a hockey game or a movie, you might want to try one of our products, said Kevin Gass, vice-president of communications and corporate marketing at BCLC.

"We consider gaming an entertaining, recreational option."

The lottery corporation's recently released, three-year service plan unveils an ambitious agenda to turn existing casinos into lavish, multipurpose facilities such as the River Rock casino in Richmond, increase the number of slot machines in once-dowdy bingo emporiums, and dramatically expand online access to lottery tickets and simple games of chance.

In the legislature, Mr. Gentner accused the government of seeking to go down the route of more serious Internet gaming, which currently produces about $12-billion (U.S.) in revenue worldwide from such activities as online poker and baccarat.

"The [gambling]addiction rate is way, way up. It's coming to a crisis proportion. . . . How far are you taking us into the field of Internet gaming?" he asked Solicitor-General John Les, the minister in charge of gaming in B.C.

Mr. Les said there are no plans afoot to market online gambling. "There will be no Internet gaming conducted by the B.C. Lottery Corporation. Period. We are absolutely committed to responsible gaming," Mr. Les declared.

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The push to boost gambling comes at a time when public acceptance of the activity is declining. The percentage of those with a favourable impression of how gaming is conducted in B.C. has dropped to 52 per cent from 58 per cent during the past three years.

The lottery corporation is also faced with what it terms an anticipated "significant [downward]impact" on revenue when smoking is banned at casinos and bingo halls next year.

There are currently 16 casinos in B.C., one so-called racino (a race track with slot machines), and 29 bingo sites, five of which currently contain slots.

One of the ways to keep revenue rising, said Mr. Gass, is not to build more casinos, but to make them bigger, with more facilities.

However, Richmond's River Rock Casino, the province's largest gambling resort, with a hotel, theatre, and 1,000 slot machines plus gaming tables, has been plagued with allegations of criminal activity.

Three kidnappings last year were said by police to have been related to gambling activities there, several women were assaulted and robbed earlier this year after leaving the casino with large winnings, and Rong Lilly Li, last seen in the casino's parking lot, was killed.

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"There is zero tolerance for unlawful activity in casinos," Mr. Gass said. "We co-operate fully with police."

And, despite a growth in gambling addiction, Mr. Gass said British Columbians are increasingly choosing gaming as a form of entertainment, in response to better casinos and more sophisticated lottery options. Year by year, the amount of money spent on legal gambling in B.C. has been on a steady rise, from $1.9-billion in 2003-2004 to a targeted $2.76-billion in 2009-2010.

Since Premier Gordon Campbell pledged during the 2001 election campaign to "stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families," the number of slot machines in B.C. has tripled.

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