Friday, October 25, 2013

Problem Gambling: a Modest Proposal*

Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin has written some very cogent pieces lately about problem gambling in British Columbia. The columns have coincided with a report from the provincial health officer, which indicates the provincial government doesn't do enough to deal with problem gambling, even as revenues from gambling continue to rise.

As people consider what to do about the problem, I have a modest proposal.

The province, in cooperation with the banking industry, should provide low-interest loans to people who identify themselves as "problem gamblers". They could start with the self-exclusion lists that problem gamblers are expected to put themselves on, so that casinos will turn them away at the door (read Pete's column on one particular problem gambler to see how well that idea works). The term of these loans would not be set by months or even years, but "until I get on my feet again" or "until I get this problem licked".

This is a win-win-win situation. Problem gamblers get their fix. More revenue flows into the provincial coffers. The scheme could be declared a "charity" and banks can get a tax write-off. The gamblers no longer steal, lie and cheat to get money to play; loan sharks are driven out of business, thereby lowering the incidence of crime; BC businesses no longer have to worry that self-excluded gamblers will just cross the border to the casinos at Tulalip or Muckleshoot. There will no longer be concerns about jobs for casino workers or for entertainers whose livelihoods often depend on casino gigs.

Harm reduction, in other words.

Of course, if you have winners, you must have losers, too. The addicted gambler will still be addicted, spending precious hours at the casino, cutting out of work in order to "pull a few handles", leaving their families wondering when or if dad or mom will be coming home. And there's no guarantee that they won't continue to spend the milk money, the kids' college fund, or the company cash float on top of the loan money. But those are minor considerations, compared to the benefits of a continued revenue stream to the province, charities and health care programs, not to mention the ability of an entire sector of society to have a good time. After all, money and good times: that's what life's about, isn't it?

The provincial health officer is an ardent supporter of harm reduction for drug addicts: why should gamblers be treated any differently?

*"A Modest Proposal" was originally an essay by Jonathan Swift, who proposed that the solution to overpopulation in Ireland would be to export Irish children as meat. No, he wasn't serious (either).

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