Sometimes the senselessness of it all almost rips Elaine Gabriel's guts out. It will be three years at Thanksgiving that her husband, Scott, overdosed on the painkiller OxyContin in his Dartmouth, N.S., apartment, unable to live any longer with depression driven by his addiction to video lottery terminals.
Just 39, he died in October of 2002, after at least a half-dozen suicide attempts over as many years. In between he packed a world of heartache and worry to his family, blowing through every dime he had and plenty he did not.
He stole his father's tools to sell for cash. He robbed a video store and attempted another holdup at a hotel. He pawned his wedding ring. He gambled the car payments. He left the hospital the night his daughter, Rebecca, was born to play VLTs. When she was 1, he left her in his car, key in the ignition, in a tavern parking lot while he ducked in to gamble for half an hour. He lost precious money for her swimming lessons, a gift from an aunt, in a VLT.
His final suicide attempt a year before he died left him disabled and without two fingers and the use of his left arm. The blood flow was cut off while he lay unconscious on it for 36 hours, passed out and near death from a drug overdose. A friend rescued him and he recovered, as best as physically possible, in hospital. When he got out, he started selling his prescription painkillers for money to gamble.
Fearing for her safety, Ms. Gabriel, a floor supervisor at a Halifax hospital, separated from Mr. Gabriel and moved to Ottawa with Rebecca four months before he died. It is painful to talk about his addiction to VLTs, but she is speaking out in hopes of persuading John Hamm, the Conservative Premier of Nova Scotia, to ban the electronic gambling machines from bars and taverns. The Bluenose province is estimated to have 7,500 problem VLT gamblers who lose an average of $1,200 a month to the machines.
She is being joined by six other families from four provinces who have lost a loved one to VLT-related suicide.
They are part of an anti-gambling citizens' group called GameOverVLTs.com, launched late last year to push for a VLT ban in the province. The group is co-chaired by Halifax MLA and former Liberal leader Danny Graham.
They are extreme examples of the staggering social cost of VLTs, as addicted players lose everything from money and marriages to jobs, homes and their lives.
With sufficient pressure, Mr. Graham believes that Nova Scotia, which has 3,845 VLTs but has promised to reduce the number by 1,000, could be the first province to outlaw them outside its two casinos. Other provinces are watching closely, and the coming weeks and months will be crucial to the cause.
In 1990, then New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna introduced VLTs -- the first in the country -- as a means of dealing with illegal machines. They were in bars and bowling alleys and corner stores and took in $10-million the first year. Across the country today, there are 39,109 VLTs and 47,878 slot machines -- they use the same basic technology but slots are generally limited to casinos -- that account for nearly half the $6.5-billion that governments receive from $12-billion in gross revenues.
It is difficult to know how many of Canada's roughly 4,000 suicides each year are prompted by gambling problems because few provincial coroners keep the data. But a 2004 Nova Scotia study named video gambling as a factor in 6.3 per cent of suicides and the Canada Safety Council has estimated as many as 360 problem gamblers kill themselves each year.
"This is an issue which is ripe and low-hanging," said Mr. Graham, who won't return to the legislature in the fall because his wife is battling cancer, but whose intention is to leave a VLT-free province as his political legacy.
"When I look at things that are utterly unjust, this sticks out most prominently. It is a chapter in my public life I can't close because it is so clearly wrong. And one of the most offensive aspects of this is that it is government that is aiding and abetting the devastation. At an institutional level, government is suffering the same kind of addiction the people under the machines are suffering."
VLTs pumped $135-million into Nova Scotia's coffers last year, and provincial governments have come to rely on the squat, squawking machines as a rich source of revenue.
For people such as Ms. Gabriel, the profits come at too high a price. Over the next three days the citizens' group, which includes actor and gambling addict John Dunsworth, Mr. Lahey on the hit series Trailer Park Boys, will hold a vigil and symposium to educate the public about the dangers of VLTs. On Monday, they will visit the legislature and read short letters they have written to Mr. Hamm in a plea for him to get rid of the machines.
By the time Mr. Gabriel hit bottom he bore little resemblance to the man Ms. Gabriel met and married in 1995. Tall, blond, physically fit and a full year straight after a stint in Gamblers Anonymous, he smiles in the dozens of family photographs that jam thick albums at the Cole Harbour home Ms. Gabriel shares with Rebecca, now 8, and their friendly charcoal cat, Louie.
In one, Mr. Gabriel looked delighted as he cradled newborn Rebecca in his arms in the fall of 1996. In another, he watched her as a five-year-old tear open Christmas presents beneath a pretty pine in the living room.
On his broad face and on the faces of his family and relatives there is no hint of the hell they endured. The snapshots are proof that at the core of the agony there was once a whole and happy family. This is what Ms. Gabriel wants the Premier to understand, what VLTs can do.
"They are deceiving, addictive and destructive," she said. "The hardest thing as a mother I ever had to do was telling our six-year-old daughter her father was in heaven. While Scott's suffering was over, ours was just beginning."
Roger Horbay, a leading gaming expert in London, Ont., with a background in addiction therapy, said his research shows unarguably that VLTs hook people who would never become addicted to blackjack or baccarat.
Video lottery games are run by computers. Game designers program them so that the icons, which differ among the dozens of games offered and include cards, fruit, numbers and bars of gold, will fall in a predetermined way no matter who pushes the button that "spins" the icons. With VLTs, there is no such thing as skill or luck and the spinning is just an illusion. Experts say that what makes the machines addictive, beyond the blinking lights and beeping sounds and hypnotic reeling, is that they are programmed to pay out smaller amounts often to keep the player hooked. And they miss the big prize by the narrowest of margins, time and again.
With playful names such as Lucky Larry's Lobstermania, Beaver Fever and Hulah Moolah, and taking bets of nickels and quarters in addition to big bills, the machines seem fun and harmless. The Atlantic Lottery Corp. says payouts range from 93 to 95 per cent. But unlike other regulated forms of gambling, the odds are not disclosed.
"The machines appear low-stakes and create illusions of near misses and close calls, leaving the impression the odds of winning are good," Mr. Horbay said. "You manipulate perceptions to keep the player there. What you experience isn't random and it creates addictive powers."
On Wednesday, Mr. Graham's group got a boost from the province's religious leaders, who joined forces in an interfaith council promising to put pressure on the minority Hamm government until the machines disappear.
"We hope that, prior to the next election, this matter will have been fully addressed by the government," said Rev. John Boyd, leader of the First Baptist Church. "We have no doubt that if it is not, it will be an election issue."
In response, Dr. Hamm said: "If it were simply a matter of waving a wand and they would vanish it would be a relatively easy issue. We've done the research and we've found a solution [reducing the number of machines]and the solution is better than the alternatives."
For Sherry Rhyno of Bedford, N.S., the only alternative for her husband, Garnet, after more than 10 years of VLT addiction, was to burn himself alive in his late-model Buick on Feb. 25, leaving her alone with their children, ages 6, 9 and 14. She figured he spent at least $100,000 on the machines while they struggled to consolidate loans and remortgage their home. He went to group therapy. He saw a counsellor. Nothing helped.
"He felt so much shame and embarrassment," Ms. Rhyno said of her 39-year-old husband. "He told me once he felt he'd lost something inside himself that he couldn't get back. He was in a lot of pain. He lost control."
Like most others in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, he started playing VLTs for fun. They were in the nearby pizza shop, and the couple put in a few quarters to kill time until their order was ready.
"At first it was nickels and quarters and then it was loonies, and it just got bad from there," Ms. Rhyno said. "They were in all the bars. Then the change machine appeared beside the VLTs. Then there were bank machines. Then they started taking bills.
"There was a machine in the bar below his office. At the end, he was leaving work for hours to gamble. How powerful is that?"
A 1997 study by Focal Research of Halifax of 18,650 VLT players in Nova Scotia suggested that 1 in 2 is at risk of developing problems and that 5 per cent of players contribute 95 per cent of the money dropped into VLTs.
"It'd be great if everyone dropped a few loonies in on the way out to dinner once a week," said Brian Cox, a psychologist and professor at the University of Manitoba and national research chair in mood and anxiety disorders. "But that's not how it works. Unfortunately, your addicts are your best customers."
A survey of 400 Nova Scotians released this month suggests that 64 per cent want VLTs removed from bars, legions and native reserves.
The only jurisdiction on the planet that has abolished VLTs is South Carolina, which had about 38,000 machines in bars, hotels and corner stores across the state in the 1990s. They were removed after a court ruling in 2000. The number of people seeking help for problem gambling fell instantly and drastically, although police confiscated about 1,000 illegal machines last year.
Dr. Hamm has argued that if the province were to outlaw VLTs they would simply move underground. Mr. Graham counters that what is behind Dr. Hamm's hesitation is a reluctance to give up the profits.
"If this were a drug that had killed even one person instead of the hundreds it kills, would the government be saying it was okay?" Mr. Graham asked. "What this is about is an addiction to the money.
"We've crept into an insidious hole under the guise of giving people choice. It's an experiment that has gone terribly wrong. Yet the very nature of it going wrong is what's behind the government having trouble pulling back."
Don and Sandy Bishop of Darling's Island, N.B., lost their son, Eric, in 1998 to VLT addiction. He shot himself at the age of 32.
Like the other men, he had smarts, a job, a loving family and no history of addictive behaviour before VLTs. All sought professional help for gambling to no avail.
"Eric was a good, strong person," his father said, "but the lure of VLTs was too much for him to bear."
He started plugging in quarters in the corner store near his parents home in 1991. Later, he travelled across the country, working for a while in Alberta and British Columbia. He checked himself into hospitals in both provinces numerous times because he was depressed and suicidal. He returned to Saint John in 1998, broke and still addicted. On Aug. 9, he drove to a nearby beach with a rifle and ended his life. A few days earlier, he had gambled away his last paycheque.
"He knew it was the only peace he'd ever get from the God-damned things," Mr. Bishop said. "You have no idea how evil they are. He once said the wheels got inside his brain. It took over his life."
His parents and older brother and sister are as heartbroken today as the day Eric surrendered to his addiction. "This has virtually ruined our lives," his mother said, tearfully. "But we feel determined to talk about it because we want the government to put a stop to them. We don't want other people to suffer this way."
As governments reap the profits, people hurt by gambling take matters into their own hands. Last year, Abdul Rafih, a tavern owner in Truro, N.S., pulled the VLTs out of his bar after one of his customers and a frequent player hanged himself in a nearby hotel.
A few months ago, Donald Swinimer of Lower Sackville, N.S., attacked five VLTs with an axe after gambling away his $825 income-tax rebate. He pleaded guilty and told the court he was trying "to break my addiction." He received two years probation.
This week, the Canada West Foundation on Gambling in Canada released figures showing that gambling has surpassed other sin taxes such as tobacco and alcohol in profitability.
"We, the public, are allowing the government to cram this bullshit down our throat that we need the revenue," Mr. Bishop said. "We don't need anything at this cost. They should raise money through taxation, based on the ability to pay."
In Nova Scotia, there has been little opposition to the idea of a ban, even from bar owners who receive a gross commission of 25 per cent of the total government take on VLTs, an average of $64,000 in 2001. And while GameOverVLTs.com is the only well-organized group lobbying to get rid of them, other provinces are pulling back slightly.
Newfoundland and Labrador announced this spring a five-year plan to reduce the number of VLTs in the province by 15 per cent; Quebec will transfer more than 2,500 VLTs from bars to gaming parlours and will reduce the number of machines by 5 per cent; Ontario has imposed a moratorium on casino expansion; Alberta will reduce VLTs by as much as 15 per cent; British Columbia has rejected calls to put VLTs in bars and lounges.
To many, limiting the machines to casinos seems like an obvious solution. "No addictions specialist would ignore the pharmacology of cocaine on a user," Mr. Horbay said. "Why should we do it with gambling?"
Bill Rutsey, president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, an industry group recently formed to speak for the manufacturers, operators and distributors, said there's nothing dangerous about VLTs.
He called them a "simple entertainment device" and is doubtful Nova Scotia will ban them.
"They have strong and heartfelt views and that's great, but trying to stop people's right to free will seems pretty Draconian and oppressive," he said. "There's a lot of energy on the prohibition side, but I don't think it'll happen. We're talking about a small percentage of the population which has issues around control."
Tell that to Mr. Graham, who called VLTs "highly addictive killing machines" and is confident he and the people telling their stories to the Premier can turn back the clock.
"Look, we regulate tobacco and outlaw crack. We regulate cars but outlaw dragsters. We regulate rum and outlaw moonshine. We regulate lottery tickets and other types of gambling but we need to outlaw these machines."
Concerned advocates across the country are hopeful about what might happen in Nova Scotia. Many therapists don't believe the machines are uniquely addictive, including Dr. Robert Hunter, founder and director of the gambling treatment program at the Charter Hospital in Las Vegas.
"The illness is not in the machine, it is in the patient," he said. "[The machines]can be problematic for those pre-wired for addiction. VLTs are not more addictive, but they do accelerate the problem."
Studies have suggested that it takes one year to become addicted to VLTs and an average of four years for other types of gambling. From all accounts, Scott Gabriel, Garnet Rhyno and Eric Bishop got hooked quickly and irrevocably.
If you drink too much you know you will get drunk, and drugs promise a high.
But VLTs offer the mystery of getting lucky, and that's what keeps the players returning.
"There's a whole addiction message inherent in other things that doesn't come with VLTs," Mr. Horbay said. "We don't realize the toxicity. It's not just a game and it's not about sick people. It's about a dangerous, hazardous product. Many people without previous problems fall into trouble."
That fuels much of the shame that surrounds VLT addiction and helps explain why it has festered in relative silence for the past decade.
"It's so taboo," Ms. Rhyno said. "People think you're being irresponsible spending all your money. But that's not it. Very strong people can't fight this and the government needs to know that. People shouldn't feel ashamed and embarrassed."
Focal Research vice-president Tracy Schrans, who has conducted gambling research and advised governments in Canada and Europe on gaming policy since 1984, said all the "safe gaming features" Nova Scotia added to the machines in 2001, such as timers and scrolling help-line information, aren't enough.
"It's just not working," she said. "This is not sustainable. If we want to call this entertainment, there are people who are killing themselves over it. We don't have people doing that over entertainment options. This is a high-risk product.
"We are hearing at a grassroots level that the damage is extensive. [I am not]a prohibitionist, but the truth is that all gambling is not created equal."
Scott Gabriel, like the other men, only ever gambled on VLTs, and Ms. Gabriel is certain they sparked a years-long battle with depression and stole his life and a father from sweet Rebecca.
"Sometimes I think I was naive," she said. "For a long time I didn't really know how bad it was. But they were a part of all the bad things that happened to us. He couldn't stop. He just couldn't stop.
"I can't even imagine that other people go through this. My troubles are over in that respect, but I couldn't have gone through years and years of it. I want these things gone, so future generations don't have to worry about them. The pain they cause is so unnecessary."
Gambling in Canada
Gambling is a big source of revenue for the provinces, putting hundreds of millions of dollars in government coffers (2003-2004).
|Government profit from gambling* (in millions of dollars)||Gambling losses* (In dollars per person)||Gambling revenue* (in dollars per person)|
Video lottery terminals in 2004
Number of VLT's per province
People per VLT machine in 2004
Gambling age citizens
SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA, CANADA WEST FOUNDATION