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marcus gee

Imagine that, instead of discouraging smoking, the government set up a special public company to promote it. Imagine it spent millions on ads telling people how exciting it is to smoke. Now imagine it offered to build a vast smoking palace on Toronto's waterfront.

Is the Ontario government's proposal to build a casino on the waterfront really so different?

Gambling, like smoking, is what used to be called a vice. Not long ago, governments banned it in the name of protecting the public from the demonstrable harms it causes, from bankruptcy to divorce to suicide.

Now the government – actively, avidly, shamelessly – promotes it. You can scarcely turn on the television without seeing an ad showing those lucky couples who beat the impossible odds and got rich from buying lottery tickets or playing the slots.

Governments at all levels have become so dependent on the easy money they reap from gambling that even prim, moralizing ones like Premier Dad's Ontario Liberals have embraced it. "The bottom line is that gambling is the only government initiative that knowingly harms the people it is elected to serve," writes Rob Simpson, who headed the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre until 2010.

He says that Ontario has about 340,000 problem gamblers. The impressive $36-million that Ontario spends to address problem gambling is dwarfed by the half billion that Mr. Simpson says the province spends on promoting, marketing and advertising gambling. He also says that fully a third of the money reaped by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. comes from problem gamblers.

Here is how he describes what they can go through: "The cycle of chasing losses with new money the gambler cannot afford to lose leads to increasing levels of anxiety that soon turn to panic. These dire circumstances evolve into what is known as 'desperation gambling,' which often involves liquidating personal assets. Loans are taken out against home equity, RSP and RESP investments are cashed out, credit cards are levered to their limits – all the while driving gamblers deeper into addiction. Ultimately, they hit bottom, a stage known as 'torment,' where any hope of recovering losses is lost. At this point, desperate measures, including suicide, are contemplated."

When confronted over all this, government officials merely shrug. People like gambling, or "gaming" as they sanitize it. We can't very well ban it (even if we once did), so we might as well make a buck off it and use it to pay for good things like schools and hospitals.

Never mind that those same hospitals will have to deal with the wrecked health of desperate gamblers. Never mind that some of the kids who go to those schools will never finish their education because they become hooked on gambling. (Young people aged 18 to 24 have the highest rate of problem gambling. Wouldn't it be grand if they could reach a full-on waterfront casino by TTC?)

Dwight Duncan, Ontario's finance minister, becomes positively rhapsodic when he talks about what a gambling palace could do for Toronto. "It's not a casino," he says. Perish the thought. Instead, it would be an "entertainment destination."

"It will likely be unparalleled in the country," Mr. Duncan said. "These places have some of the finest shopping, restaurants, convention facilities, park spaces, open spaces – imagine an anchor that could create a golden mile on Toronto's waterfront and that's quite possible."

The issue is expected to come up at city council on Tuesday. At least one opposing councillor would like to see it put to a referendum.

Mr. Duncan says he will respect Toronto's decision, but he hints we would be saps to turn it down – and a government that is so far into the gambling business should know something about saps. He says that other Greater Toronto jurisdictions are beating down his door for a chance to cash in.

Well, let them beat. Let Toronto's be the one government with the sense to resist the destructive spread of government-promoted gambling.

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