Gambling suicides are up slightly, with 13 of them taking place in 2007, according to new figures from the Ontario coroner's office, and officials say the actual number is probably higher.
"Sometimes it's not immediately obvious that someone who has harmed themselves has a history of gambling," Ontario's chief coroner Andrew McCallum said in a phone interview Tuesday. "The numbers probably under-represent the true figures. … People who commit suicide often don't leave a note."
A Globe and Mail investigation last fall revealed government-owned casinos are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on freebies - trips, dinners, theatre tickets - that keep gamblers coming back. Gambling debts have led to bankruptcies and even suicides.
Although there are no countrywide statistics, Canada Safety Council estimates 200 problem gamblers kill themselves every year. The Globe and Mail contacted each province to track the numbers of gambling-related suicides, finding only 50 such deaths were recorded in 2007 among the seven provinces reporting.
Specifically, in addition to Ontario's 13-gambling-related suicides, Quebec reported 22; Alberta, 9; British Columbia, 3; Saskatchewan, 2; New Brunswick at 1 and Manitoba none.
Not all provinces compel their coroners to report gambling-related suicides, which often require an investigation to disentangle the deaths from other causes.
Nova Scotia no longer tracks gambling-related suicides as it says there is no way to gather the information. Prince Edward Island has asked coroners to collect such data when investigating suicides; it said it had one gambling death in the past five years. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there were nine deaths from Jan. 1, 1997, to Dec. 31, 2008, in which gambling was thought to be a stressor. (The province could not break them down by year.) In Ontario, there have been 75 gambling-related suicides since the province started gathering data on them in 1997.
Dr. McCallum said he was hesitant to note any trend based on the Ontario figures, which were at their highest in 2007, after 12 suicides the previous year. However, he noted that the province's coroners are "looking at this much more closely than we were 10 years ago."
Peter McKenna, associate professor, department of political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, said he is skeptical of figures showing gambling-related suicides, saying they are likely much higher.
"This is a hot potato," said Mr. McKenna, author of Terminal Damage: The Politics of VLTs in Atlantic Canada. "How far and how deep are they digging to get at these numbers, knowing they are politically devastating to governments."