MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley's recent Postmedia column "Governments should get out of gambling" has been making waves in the media. The Gazette's Henry Aubin quoted Crowley's piece in his own column on gambling, "There's bitter irony in casino plans," which explores the Quebec government's reversal of a ban on alcohol at Montreal casinos. You can read Aubin's column here:

Henry Aubin: There's bitter irony in casino plans

Successive provincial governments have prevented Loto-Québec from permitting alcohol at the Montreal casino's gambling areas since its 1993 opening. The ban ended abruptly last week when, with the Marois government's blessing, Loto started allowing beer, wine and liquor next to the slot machines and tables of its Casino de Montréal and its three more recent casinos.

So what if an article published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health finds a high correlation between alcoholism and addictive gambling?

So what if a study published by the Society for the Study of Addiction concludes that drinking even "relatively small amounts of alcohol" by casual gamblers "significantly" weakens self-control over gambling?

And, finally, never mind if one of the Bourassa government's rationales for opening the Montreal casino in the first place was to ensure the protection and well-being of gamblers, who might otherwise endure the predatory practices of illegal private venues.

Yet the reversal of the booze policy is more than just the abandonment of a long-standing ethical standard. It is also a sign of a new and sweeping Loto-Québec strategy to spur the public to gamble more.

The strategy includes a $318-million renovation of the Montreal casino, due to be largely completed by the end of this year. The overhaul will later include a 725-seat theatre (due to open in 2015), an upgrade of the smaller cabaret that closed three years ago. The idea is to use relatively big-name acts to draw spectators who might not otherwise go to the casino, and for the crowds to then stick around and try the "games."

Incidentally, the theatre could become controversial for another reason than for its role as gambling bait: The provincially owned venue could also compete against Montreal city hall's own ambitious plan to make the yet-to-be-completed Quartier des spectacles a showcase for live entertainment. A large theatre at the South Shore's Dix/30 already poses a challenge to Montreal's project; now this.

Loto's strategy also calls for enlarging the market for video-lottery terminals. It is replacing all 12,000 of them scattered in bars across the province. The new models, says Loto's annual report, will be more "fun." Never mind that VLTS are the most addictive of Loto's wares.

To get people to try the new models, Loto is also spending $502,000 to promote them this year, almost three times what it spent two years ago.

Earlier aspects of the strategy, which I described last winter, include Loto's co-sponsorship of a University Poker Championship. To induce students to gamble more, the contest offers $20,000 in prize money.

Another tactic that Loto introduced early this year was betting on the Oscar winners. That's ideal for attracting the young adults.

Loto's woes explain all this wooing. Its net profit from all sources — including casinos, VLTs, slot machines, lotteries, bingo and online betting — is down by a surprising 12 per cent since 2009. Renovation at the Casino de Montréal, which keeps some customers away, contributes to this drop, but the main cause is competition posed by private gambling halls at Kahnawake (which Loto deems to be illegal) and online options. Loto's new alcohol policy allows its casinos to compete against Kahnawake.

Loto last year gave the Quebec government $1.19 billion in dividends, $2 million less than the year before. The government might be headed by a former social worker, Pauline Marois, but — preoccupied as it with cutting its deficit — it has asked Loto to boost the dividend it gives the government by $50 million this year and $90 million next year. Look no further for the cause of Loto's aggressive search for marks — excuse me, customers.

Brian Lee Crowley, of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute think tank, has noted the bitter irony. "We endlessly debate the fairness of the tax system, the regressive nature of sales taxes, how the tax burden should be shared out between individuals and corporations, how much harder the income tax should hit those at the top of the income scale than at the bottom. We worry about how user fees will affect low income people.... Somehow gambling revenues escape this scrutiny."

He's referring to Ontario, but the same applies here. Those who gamble – and who by definition almost always lose money – tend to be those who can least afford to.

Gambling is by nature a cruelly exploitative business, and the Marois government is making it all the more so.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette


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