MISSING LINKS: CBC’s ‘Fifth Estate’ Probe into Gambling Problems Has Many Gaps

Credit: Academy.ca

Part I of an ongoing Awakening News series looking behind the ‘casino culture’

By Awakening Staff

The “Fifth Estate,” an investigative news program of the taxpayer-supported $1.1 billion-per-year CBC, recently investigated what it called “the government’s addiction problem” in OLG casinos, as reported in the Fifth Estate’s news documentary, “Gambling on Addiction: How Governments Rely on Problem Gamblers.” It first aired in December 2017.

Amid a wide array of problems that have been witnessed and documented regarding Canadian casinos—affecting not just gambling customers but also casino workers and the greater society—this Fifth Estate documentary limits itself to examining serious gambling addiction among individuals, while showing how the Self-Exclusion Program (SEP) run by the OLG to supposedly prevent gambling addicts from returning to casinos is not working particularly well.

Notably, the SEP involves voluntarily enrollment. The OLG takes the gambling addict’s picture and gathers information on the individual. Then, through facial-recognition software utilized by the widespread surveillance cameras commonly used in modern casinos, the problem gambler is supposed to be spotted and asked to leave the casino if he or she has entered or tries to enter.

ADDICTS MEAN BIG MONEY

To its credit, the Fifth Estate program shows, rather than excluding most problem gamblers, the OLG has strong incentives to tolerate and even invite gambling addiction.

Addicts represent big money for government revenue coffers. For, as Fifth Estate narrator and lead reporter Mark Kelley explains, casino gambling has become a mega-profitable industry in Canada since its humble beginnings as a single state lottery, “Wintario,” in 1975.

Wintario, said Kelley, made a “meager” $43 million profit in its first year. Today, the OLG is now the “biggest gaming corporation in Canada” with about 18,000 employees, “bringing in $7.5 billion in gross annual revenues for a deficit-ridden government.”

Meanwhile, the province of Alberta, in 2016, generated more tax revenue from gambling than it did from oil and gas receipts.

Furthermore, Ontario Lottery and Gaming—or OLG, the provincial government’s overseer and chief promoter of gambling—spends a little over $330 million per year on advertising for the gambling industry but just $50 million on fighting gambling-addiction via counseling and other programs.

WHAT ABOUT GAMBLING ADS AFFECTING MEDIA POLICY?

Curiously, the Fifth Estate, like virtually all Canadian media, is mute on how such an outlay of ad dollars flowing into media outlets would affect the editorial policy of the media about casino issues—including the CBC itself. More on that in future Awakening News installments.

Meanwhile, the Fifth Estate’s investigation showed that the OLG is not thorough or efficient catching returning addicts. An undercover Fifth Estate producer who signed up for the SEP was easily able to enter no less than four OLG casinos, including Casino Niagara and the Mohawk Race Track’s casino, and gamble, cash out and leave without being detected.

Narrator Mark Kelley, who noted, “we know when it comes to gambling the House always wins,” interviewed gambling addict Joe Frieri. “Like hundreds of thousands of Canadians, [Joe] is a gambling addict,” Kelly narrated, while explaining that Joe—who started borrowing from family members, and then from banks and loan sharks—has suffered massive losses and is on the hook for $1.5 million.

“But the dirty little secret is how much government-run casinos rely on problem gamblers,” continued Kelley, who interviewed Professor Robert Williams of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. “Fifteen to 50% of gambling revenue comes from problem gamblers,” Professor Williams told Kelley, while another interviewee said that addicted gamblers are casinos’ “stock in trade.”

Joe’s weakness, according to the Fifth Estate’s report, boils down to not only his personality flaws but also to the hypnotic power of Electronic Gaming Machines, or EGMs. We call them slot machines.

“88% of casino gaming revenue comes from slot machines,” Kelley noted. Moreover, there are an estimated 100,000 legal EGMs in Canada compared to 65,000 Automatic Teller Machines, or ATMs, used for routine banking needs.

“When it comes to gambling, Canadians have plenty of skin in the game. Last year, we spent about $13 billion on legal, government-run gambling. That’s more than we spend on movies, hockey tickets, and Tim Horton’s—combined,” an online Fifth Estate article accompanying the documentary observed.

Moreover, Kelley added that across Canada as a whole, nearly half a billion per year is shelled out by the OLG for casino advertising. Is that buying media silence about the wider array of gambling’s pitfalls, regardless of the jobs and other perks that gambling does bring?

WHAT ABOUT DOWNTOWN BUSINESSES?

Here again, the wider implications of so much disposable consumer income being spent at casinos are ignored by the CBC/Fifth Estate. As the Awakening News has previously reported in its seasonal print editions, all that spending money flowing to casinos is money that’s not supporting downtown businesses in Coldwater, Orillia, Midland, Barrie, you name it. “Mom and pop” businesses are hit the hardest, as business owners have told the Awakening News.

But while this Fifth Estate probe of Canadian gambling does provide some valuable information and insights, the production limits itself to the rather narrow “bandwidth” of the government capitalizing on personal gambling addictions amid the OLG’s failure to deter problem gamblers from returning to the source of their addiction.

Adding insult to injury, the OLG also punishes addicts who happen to win over $10,000 but the casino operators don’t mind if gamblers stick around and constantly lose their money.

The “Jackpot Redemption Detection Incident Files of OLG,” from July 2016 to October 2017, showed 77 new cases (28%) of jackpot winners being sent home. Furthermore, a six-year period saw 274 self-excluded gamblers who were caught only when they won big jackpots, as the Fifth Estate noted.

Yet, the OLG pays off some problem gamblers and has settled at least 18 such cases out of court under gag orders that require the beneficiaries to keep silent about the settlements.

MANY GAPS TO FILL

So, to be sure, the insights that the Fifth Estate has reported so far about casinos are important, but they only go so far. According to the Awakening’s own contacts consisting of current and former casino workers who requested anonymity, there’s much more to the issue of casino problems across Canada, with similar problems mushrooming in America and elsewhere.

Just for starters, in Canada:

  • Problem gamblers  verbally and sometimes physically assault casino workers on a regular basis. This includes, but is not limited to, male gamblers assaulting female casino workers—a notable matter given society’s current interest in assaults against women.
  • And in one of the most egregious recent incidents, management at Casino Rama near Orillia, Ontario allowed a female dealer to continue handling money even after the cash was found to be laced with a mysterious white powder.

Regarding that powder incident, when the Ontario Provincial Police arrived to investigate, the lady dealer had already been ordered to continue handling the money, even though Canada’s Health and Safety Act requires that either the potential hazard of whatever nature be removed from the premises, or the people in the vicinity of the hazard be removed from the area.

“You’re handling a big wad of cash out of a bag, and all of a sudden white powder turns up!” exclaimed one longtime Casino Rama worker who requested anonymity. “The police show up to take a sample, but it was too late.”

The bottom line is that reprisals from management, or even the threat of reprisals, hangs over many if not most casino employees like a dark cloud that won’t pass.

That is no small matter, considering that last year’s mass-shooting suspect at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas was first a problem gambler who lost tens of thousands of dollars in Vegas casinos. So, he must have come in contact with numerous casino employees whose observations about him, had they been heeded early-on, might have given authorities a reason to intervene and apprehend or counsel him. Perhaps a shooting could have been prevented. (See previous Awakening story on that angle here)

But due to the widespread pressure placed upon casino workers to conform and remain quiet, blowing the whistle on everything from unruly gamblers to abusive management practices that expose workers to possible harm (due to the non-removal of various workplace hazards) is an exceedingly difficult thing to do, since workers fear job-loss.

Thus, a tight lid is kept on the deep downside of the casino culture—which many workers contacted by the Awakening over the last few years have compared to a sweatshop-like environment—making these workers feel like they’re trapped between sometimes negligent or abusive management on one side, and problem gamblers, including addicts, on the other.

As of this Jan. 17, 2018 writing, it remains to be seen whether the Fifth Estate will dig deeper into the casino issue, not to mention the CBC’s Erica Johnson, whose “Go Public” series has interviewed banking employees who are pressured by management to lie to customers in order to meet unrealistic sales quotas. However, Go Public has not approached casino workers to reveal their plight—which is yet another missing link in the casino coverage by mainstream Canadian media—particularly the tax-funded CBC.

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