Online gambling website brings high risks, high rewards

The Ontario government’s new online gambling website may encourage younger Canadians to start gambling, according to an assistant professor of sociology at Trent University.

“It remains to be seen how much young people they will get,” Trent university professor Jim Cosgrave said about the new website in a phone interview. Cosgrave has been studying gambling for more than 15 years and published two books on the subject. “But, that’s what they’re aiming for because young people are more media savvy.”

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. launched the online gambling site, which went live in January, allowing Ontario residents at least 18 years of age to access to casino-style games and buy lottery tickets that are for sale on the site.

“It makes gambling, obviously, very easily accessible,” Cosgrave said. “So, now you can gamble from your own home and accessibility or convenience gambling is associated with problem gambling.”

According to the latest available statistics provided by the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, moderate to severe problem gambling in 2009 affected 3.2 per cent of Canadian adults. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry also found 2.2 per cent of youth aged 15 to 24 were affected by moderate risk of problem gambling.

OLG’s site permits users to set their own limits of up to $9,999 per week, creating the potential for players to lose a lot of their money quite quickly, which carries risks if they “get in over their heads,” Cosgrave says.

“The government is the regulator of gambling, but it is also the beneficiary. So any regulation that puts it in conflict with itself in terms of how much money they’re going to get,” Cosgrave said about the problem with government safeguards. “So it’s kind of a conflict of interest.”

But Peter Shurman, a former Ontario Progressive Conservative finance critic, says this is one of the reasons why the province should not be involved in gambling, and instead act solely as a regulator. Shurman says the private sector should be allowed to expand and grow the industry, which would bring more profits, revenue, and jobs to Ontario.

“If you were to put it in the hands of private operators, you wind up with a greater maximization of resources and therefore better profitability on the bottom line,” he said in a phone interview. “If you let them do their job the way they know how, you would probably get a better experience for people who are buying the product.”

Shurman, who doesn’t gamble himself and generally isn’t a fan of it, does not believe people have to be told what is and is not good for them, and they can make decisions for themselves.

Shurman also says allowing more private gambling enterprises into the province would help lower the rate of illicit gambling operations, such as illegal booking operations by organized crime, where an estimated $10 billion is bet through, according to the Canadian Gaming Association.

“That’s an interesting argument, but then it (the government) would have to be careful about the extent gambling expands in society,” Cosgrave said. “But, then you wouldn’t be getting the revenues to be put towards whatever the government is putting it towards.”

Cosgrave points to the provincial government’s current $10.5 billion budget deficit and almost $300 billion in debt, explaining the new site is driven by the need for more revenue to pay down these expenses.

Ontario’s current laws concerning online gambling, Cosgrave says, makes it illegal for residents to play on foreign based sites, which Cosgrave says is one of the reasons why OLG created the site, and that the government has “given up,” on trying to stop people from playing on the websites.

“Canadians are playing online sites located in other countries,” Cosgrave says. “So, the government’s rationale is ‘we’re losing $500 million a year to people playing on these illegal sites, so we’re just going to go ahead and offer are own online games.’”

Shurman, however, does not expect this approach to work. Explaining Ontarians will ultimately go to places that provide the best services, which he says right now are not in the province.

“Why would they suddenly decide to support Ontario?” Shurman says. “Is it because of civic pride, and they want to keep money at home and into their government’s coffers? I don’t think so, I think they’re going to go where they get the best games and the best bang for their buck.”