The Atlantic Lottery Corporation says it’s preparing to expand a new online casino to allow play by residents of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, after quietly launching a site New Brunswickers could access in August 2020.
That website allows New Brunswick residents to gamble up to $500 on a hand of blackjack, or up to $100 on a single pull of a virtual slot machine, all from the privacy of their own homes.
The launch of that site came as the culmination of efforts dating back a decade by Atlantic Lotto to get any of its shareholders — the four provincial governments in Atlantic Canada — to buy into the notion of an online casino. After years of being turned down, Atlantic Lotto said the coronavirus pandemic proved to be the right time to launch its online effort.
“Offshore operators who are marketing to Atlantic Canadians really picked up steam over COVID,” said Chris Keevill, CEO of Atlantic Lotto. “We don’t think that they operate with the best interests and safety of Atlantic Canadians in mind.”
According to ALC, about $100 million leaves the Atlantic region each year through gambling on offshore websites. However, when asked how that figure was calculated, Keevill said it’s “very difficult to track.”
Traditional lottery revenues hurting
The new online casino comes as provinces are expecting the pandemic to take a significant bite out of traditional lottery revenues.
In 2016, Atlantic Lotto told its provincial shareholders that an online casino could generate $80 million in net revenue over seven years, according to a report obtained by CBC Newfoundland and Labrador through access to information legislation.
Revenues would be distributed according to how much play there is in each province. Only New Brunswickers are able to access that province’s online casino, and only when they’re connecting to the internet from within the province. The same restrictions would be in place for ALC online casinos launched on behalf of other Atlantic provinces.
While Keevill wouldn’t say how much money the New Brunswick online casino has made since August, the P.E.I. government said it’s been told by Atlantic Lotto that the Island could receive $750,000 in profit in the first year of operation, after costs.
There are concerns the new online games could lead to more problems related to gambling addiction in the provinces that participate, though.
New Brunswick’s online casino allows maximum bets on virtual slot machines up to 40 times higher than what’s allowed on in-person VLTs in the province.
Keevill defends the bigger bets, saying Atlantic Lotto is trying to compete with offshore sites that “have in many cases no limits at all.”
But Elizabeth Stephen, a registered counselling therapist in Halifax who for more than 20 years has specialized in gambling addictions, said Atlantic Lotto’s site will “legitimize” online casino gambling, attracting people who never would have shared their credit card information with the offshore sites.
“It normalizes it. It says, ‘Here’s your provincial company. The money goes back to your own province. It’s a good thing,'” Stephen said.
Stephen said slot machines and VLTs are already the most addictive form of gambling. Putting versions of those devices online will only make it easier for people to access, she believes.
“That’s what needs to be the focus here: The product and the potential harms, and is it worth it?”
Stephen said regulations for online gambling should be stricter than those in place for in-person facilities, but instead the opposite seems to be the case with ALC’s website. If Nova Scotia launches an online casino with the same betting limits as New Brunswick, Stephen said she would expect profits and gambling addictions to rise.
In a statement to CBC News, the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation said “implementation of online casino-style games is being evaluated,” and that the gambling regulator “will continue to work with experts to ensure Nova Scotians have a safe and responsible online gambling option.”
The P.E.I. cabinet approved that province’s participation in an online casino on Dec. 22. In a statement, the provincial Department of Finance said its goal was to ensure residents “play in a safe and regulated environment.”
ALC has no immediate plans for a similar online casino that would be open to residents of Newfoundland and Labrador.
A statement on behalf of N.L.’s Minister of Finance Siobhan Coady said: “ALC revenues are expected to be lower in 2020-21 due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but our government has not made a decision on whether to implement this concept in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
New Brunswick’s online casino was launched without public consultation, notification, or even so much as a media release from the province or Atlantic Lotto. It was rolled out quietly because it was a pilot project, Keevill said.
But P.E.I.’s Opposition finance critic said there need to be public consultations before the province launches its own online casino — and that those consultations should have taken place before cabinet made its decision on the matter.
“What we need to look at is how we’re raising revenue, and are we doing it in an ethical way, and in a way that supports Islanders?” said Michele Beaton, the Green Party MLA for Mermaid-Stratford. “I’m concerned about making gambling increasingly available to people who are already struggling with gambling addiction. And moving this online will ensure increased access to Islanders.”
Allowing online casino with large bets ‘simply wrong,’ says P.E.I. Liberal MLA
P.E.I.’s standing committee on health and social development will investigate the mental health implications of the new online casino.
“The timing is so wrong” for an online casino that allows large bets, said Liberal MLA Heath MacDonald, who asked the standing committee to make this a priority.
“We’ve just lived through nine months of a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental illness, and the numbers are increasing daily,” MacDonald said in an interview with CBC News. “And I think addictions was a topic of many discussions for many people — all Islanders, many people, many families. One of the addictions we sometimes tend to forget is gambling addiction.”
On Wednesday, January 13, the committee voted unanimously to call witnesses to appear as soon as possible, including the provincial addictions co-ordinator and a researcher from UPEI, along with someone from public health.
“To make a decision to bring forth this kind of alternative gambling is simply wrong, and government should look at reversing its decision,” MacDonald said. He hopes testimony from experts at the committee will help lead the government to agree with him, he said.
“I think we really have to take a serious look at what it can do to individuals and their families,” MacDonald said. “It’s not very pretty and it’s not pleasant.”
MacDonald noted he “didn’t want to have any part of it” when a similar proposal was pitched to government when he was P.E.I.’s finance minister just a couple of years ago.