The gambling industry, which grosses about $8.7-billion a year in Canada, amounts to an elaborate conspiracy of the clever against the dim. Government-operated gambling, including lotteries, has rightly been called "a tax on stupidity." But while that's an indulgent, almost amiable way to describe it, the spread of gambling to every mall in every town has produced ugly results.
Convincing research indicates that about one in 20 gamblers is an addict or in danger of becoming one -- "a problem gambler," as sociology says, or "a degenerate gambler," as Mafia characters on TV say. Commercials for Lotto 6/49 and other scams present gamblers as happy, fun-loving folk, but addictive gamblers live stress-filled and often wretched lives. Their existence becomes "one-dimensional, largely eaten up by gambling," in the words of Lorne Tepperman, a University of Toronto sociologist and the author of a new study, Betting Their Lives: The Close Relations of Problem Gamblers (Oxford).
Lotteries were considered a cheap, friendly pastime in 1967, when Pierre Trudeau, as minister of justice, introduced the bill that made them legal. Their status has radically changed. Those who study the private tragedies of gamblers now put lotteries in the same category as blackjack, horse racing, slot machines and the rest. One kind of gambling can destroy lives as easily as another. It's an axiom that increasing the opportunities to gamble inevitably increases the number of addicted gamblers.
A blatant form of hypocrisy afflicts state-authorized gambling. Loto-Quebec, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and the other provincial agencies popularize gambling as entertainment and attract money to provincial treasuries. Later, when the human damage is done, the same provinces try (not with great success) to cure the illness they helped spread.
Studying the patrons at lottery outlets, Tepperman notices a pattern. On arrival they show an edge of anticipation and animation. They chat with the people behind the counter. Then they get the bad news. "Their mood changes. Typically, they leave without speaking." What fun.
Tepperman's attempt to understand how heavy gamblers and their families try to make sense of a painful, risk-charged life takes him deep into what he calls "the troubled sea of problem gamblers." He tells nightmarish tales of families dominated by lies, evasions and humiliation. He describes a man, working in a factory for $26 an hour, who somehow acquired a $100,000 gambling debt. Another of his subjects has sold belongings, including his car, to finance his addiction. Like many gamblers, he's lost his wife's trust and also his own. Because he knows he can't gamble moderately, he has no bank account and no credit cards. He works for cash and pays cash. Still, he gambles. Another interviewee hides from his wife a separate bank account in which he secretes overtime pay and bonuses so that he'll always be prepared to gamble.
Spouses tell Tepperman about their attempts to change the habits of their betting-hooked partners. Few of them report success. Instead they often accept a permanently troubled, sometimes terrifying existence. A couple Tepperman calls Margaret and Bob live with a permanent pathology. Bob's blackjack habit has sometimes cost them their rent and food money. Sometimes they go to the casino together and Bob gives Margaret his bank card to hold. Margaret confronts him about his spending on Pro-Line tickets; he replies that he can't stop. Several times they have separated but Margaret doesn't want to lose him.
Gamblers and their spouses, Tepperman argues, often live in isolation from each other because the secrecy inherent in gambling forces them to make separate friends. He suggests that therapy should involve the families affected by gambling. The cost of gambling becomes a family crisis and the attempt to help gamblers purely as individuals is unpromising.
Therapy often encounters a peculiar Catch-22. Gamblers typically delude themselves into thinking they'll pay their debts by gambling. To them, therapy intended to help them seems to foreclose their chance to recover their money. As Tepperman says, "For these people, treatment demands that they quit the very activity that they need to engage in to have any chance at all of recouping their losses." This fantasy separates addictive gambling from dependence on alcohol, nicotine or illegal drugs. Only problem gamblers imagine that their habit will, sometime soon, provide its own solution.
In certain circumstances addicted gamblers can be helped, but what about governments that have convinced themselves they are dependent on money from gambling? There's no chance at all that we'll ever see a cure for that addiction.