Feeding the million-dollar babies

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Part 1 of 2: Video lottery terminal addictions an ongoing issue

In less than a year, from May 2013 to March 2014, a single video lottery terminal (VLT) active in this province ate more than $650,000 in cash, according to a printout from the machine obtained by The Telegram.

It was not a one-off. Three machines in the same location were fed more than $600,000 from the people in the seats in the same time period.

Not all VLTs in the province are taking in that kind of cash, but there is no publicly available documentation to show how much any one, or all machines collectively, are taking in.

The printouts from individual machines are available to the different VLT operators at the province’s bars, restaurants, hotels and other licensed establishments, for checks against the information automatically downloaded to the Atlantic Lottery Corp. (ALC).

Annually, the ALC issues a public report on its work, including its take from VLTs, but states only a single number of net profit, taking out the winnings paid to a limited number of users and ultimately hiding the raw amount of cash in.

On the machine that ate more than $650,000, for example, the net revenue was less than $140,000.

Discussion about VLTs remains centred on the question of whether or not they unfairly strip money from a limited number of people, including those with identified addictions, in order to benefit the public coffers.

At least one self-identified gaming addict has told The Telegram they feel the lack of reporting by the ALC of the money being taken in by the machines hides the real impact of VLTs.

“I would venture to guess that many readers are astounded by this (printout) information and are probably wondering why more people aren’t complaining. The answer to this question is because many people (I included) are gambling secretly behind the backs of their families and loved ones. Most of these people are afraid to tell anyone how much money they lose on a consistent basis,” the individual stated, insisting upon using the name John Doe, interacting with the paper through a letter and subsequent email exchanges.

They supplied a single machine printout to the paper.

Independent of that, The Telegram was able to obtain others from a second location, for comparison and some context.

“Over the past few years I have played the VLT machines on a regular basis and have no issues admitting that I have somehow become addicted. When I first started playing there was the odd time when I would go home with a few hundred dollars in my pocket, and more often than not I would go home a few hundred down,” wrote John Doe, who would not state their real name or meet with a reporter out of, they stated, concern for embarrassment to their family.

“In total over the past few weeks I have deposited several thousands of dollars into the machines with absolutely no return. I lost $500-$600 four days straight, during the same hours of the day and in the same building,” the anonymous player said.

They went so far as to contact the ALC when they became aware of how much money individual machines were taking in from a relatively small number of people — though the numbers remain unclear.

“If someone sits at a machine for an hour and loses a $100 or even $200, for some then so be it. But there is absolutely no way that a machine should be able to profit $800 from one person in a two-hour time period,” John Doe stated.

The response from the ALC was a warning against any player chasing losses, paired with an offering of assistance to deal with the gaming addiction.

That offer of help was refused by John Doe who, simply put, did not trust the source.

In 2005, the government revealed a plan to curb problem VLT usage. It included a freeze on the number of terminals, plans to cut back the number, enhanced addictions services and changes to VLT programming to deter inappropriate use.

The idea was applauded by the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Workers.

“Video lottery terminals have become increasingly problematic given their addictive nature and vast accessibility,” the association stated in a 2007 position paper.

“The (association) believes that it is important to address the systemic issues of poverty and inequality, and the links to VLT use in this province, as poverty is deemed to be the greatest threat to health.”

From 1991-2005, the number of VLTs in the province had grown to about 2,700 in 600 locations. The provincial government committed to cutting the total to 2,280 over five years. The current number is about 2,000.

Year over year, regionally, Atlantic Lottery is regularly making less net profit overall on VLTs. However, Newfoundland and Labrador’s share of the regional total has increased.

Newfoundland and Labrador contributed $122.69 million in net video lottery receipts for year-ended 2013. That is virtually unchanged from the $123 million reported in 2009.

ALC spokesman Craig Ennis says the corporation supports responsible VLT usage, stating machines pay out 93-95 per cent of what they take in.

“In 1990 we assumed management of the VL(T)s and before that time they were unregulated, didn’t have some of the safe guards that can be found now and they were found in locations where minors could access them,” he said.

“What we’ve done for responsible gambling is there’s wagers and amounts won displayed in dollar amounts, there’s pop up reminders for length of play, there’s forced cashouts and there’s deposit limits. And in addition to that, we have our employees and our retailers trained in responsible gambling so that they can carry out that (ALC) mandate for responsible gaming.”

Asked specifically about the lack of public reporting of straight “cash in” and money paid out, he said he would have to ask about the reporting process. He later stated via email the ALC is not permitted to report those totals.

“ALC’s annual reports on net revenue numbers as it is required to do so by International Financial Reporting Standards accounting principles and is industry standard. We are not allowed by these international accounting standards to report on revenue because we would be in a position where we could overstate earnings, which is contrary to acceptable accounting practices,” he stated.

“To give you a for instance, a player could put $20 into a machine but only decide to play $10 and cash-out the other $10, so if we reported top-line it would suggest our revenue is equivalent to all deposits however the player has the choice to cash out at anytime. Hence why we report on net, because it is an accurate/actual number.”

The ALC acknowledged all of the information is tracked. It also acknowledged not all of the information is publicly released.

In leadup to the publication of this story, The Telegram contacted John Doe to let them know it was coming. The anonymous player said they lost another $1,000 to the machines over the weekend.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: VLT, Atlantic Lottery, Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Workers

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Margaret
    March 25, 2014 - 17:31

    Some people just can't stand prosperity. I can't afford to put four or five hundred dollars into a video lotto machine. By the time I feed my family, I don't have any money left. But then, I'm not selfish. My family being comfortable is more important than my feeling good for a few hours.

  • Jamie Lannister
    March 25, 2014 - 15:12

    VLT's? Sorry, the official name is Da Whaps. They're a tax on stupid people. You can gamble online with better odds.

  • joey T
    March 25, 2014 - 13:20

    I know people who have committed crimes, been charged, served jail time...all because of these machines. These same folks continue to play he 'slots' and spend money they can ill afford to lose. the Government may view them as a revenue source, but they are only getting their own income support funds back in many cases. Sad situation. The reality is they need to be banned, and the bars and clubs that rely on them for revenues will simply die off. Good riddance.

  • joey T
    March 25, 2014 - 13:18

    I know people who have committed crimes, been charged, served jail time...all because of these machines. These same folks continue to play he 'slots' and spend money they can ill afford to lose. the Government may view them as a revenue source, but they are only getting their own income support funds back in many cases. Sad situation. The reality is they need to be banned, and the bars and clubs that rely on them for revenues will simply die off. Good riddance.

  • Bert
    March 25, 2014 - 09:49

    Time to remove these VLT's from the province. People say, people will find other ways. I disagree. Even if they do , I cannot think of anything that's as addictive as VLT's. Let them buy lottery tickets, play bingo, some may play poker once or twice a month. None of these is as addictive or as costly as VLT's. Get rid of them before they destroy anymore families!!!

    • Brad
      March 25, 2014 - 10:04

      Congratulations for just proving you don't have any intelligence at all. Let's get rid of them, even if they are going to gamble online. Impeccable logic...

    • saelcove
      March 25, 2014 - 10:24

      What do you think is keeping some of these clubs open no vlt,s no club

    • Christopher Chafe
      March 25, 2014 - 12:28

      Bert......let's see here now.......1) Booze, 2)Drugs, and 3) Smoking. More importantly, why should the normal sensible individuals who on occasion use these machines have to suffer due to those who are addicted to them and refuse help.

    • Bert
      March 25, 2014 - 12:52

      Guess I'm getting responses from people or some club-owners who could care less about VLT addicts causing their children and spouses to suffer financial and mental torment.

    • John
      March 25, 2014 - 13:15

      Not many people play a little and give it up. Its highly addictive and prone to impulse useage. Only people with little or no regard to the families eg. children and spouse who go so much torment could condone VLTs

  • Original Valleyer
    March 25, 2014 - 09:28

    As a former employee in the bar industry, I have seen first-hand the bottomless pit that VLT's truly are. 20 years ago I started working the bars in a small community with what was, at the time, largely a welfare based economy. I would see the same faces the same time every month say the same thing. "Gonna throw a 20 in before I go get groceries." End result was almost always the same. ie Patron would leave the bar near broke after spending the bulk of their cheque, and nothing left for necessities. Point here being once the opportunity for a perceived fast buck is introduced to the most vulnerable in our society those people are going to jump in with both feet. Our government knows, and knew this all along. Yet they put on the caring face, almost defending the "one-armed bandits" preaching responsible gaming, offering up catch phrases and the like. Sure they do throw some of the profits into some "free" addictions programs, but good luck using these services. Someone here suggested bars get rid of the machines, but unless it is mandated and outlawed, the owners of the establishments are going to continue to allow them as they are, either directly or indirectly, a source of income. $20 used to get a patron 5 beer/drinks at a bar. Was a relatively inexpensive night. Now you tend to see that $20 get 1 beer and the remainder gets fed into the VLTs. At the end of the day, the only way to eliminate this scourge is through legislation. But you can bet on a sure thing here. The government is not about to allow these cash cows to simply go to the wayside.

  • J
    March 25, 2014 - 07:55

    St. John's needs a full blown casino. No sarcasm. Keep your moral arguments to yourself. Responsbile people should be able to do something they enjoy. They still have alcohol in this province even with all the drunk drivers going around.

  • Marty
    March 25, 2014 - 07:47

    This story is one of thousands where an entity is continuously making millions from an addiction. The hold this addiction has on individuals is incomprehensible unless you've lived through it. I don't gamble , not even a lotto ticket, but know good people who have lost excellent jobs, their homes, friends and families through this horrible addiction. This is normally an "invisible" addiction , unlike somebody regularly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. There are free counselling services (both group and individual) available through Eastern Health as well as "for fee" private counselling . The addict still has to work every day to try and get this gambling addiction under control. These VLTs should be outlawed. In my opinion, ALC should be considered the same as a drug pusher who also preys on people with an addiction!

    • Jay
      March 25, 2014 - 08:15

      Marty, Well said. VLTs should be outlawed.

    • saelcove
      March 25, 2014 - 10:31

      Just another case were the minority cause problems for the majority, No one is forcing people to play the dumb machines, many people drink to much time to ban booze and the list go on

  • enough already
    March 25, 2014 - 07:09

    Does the NL gov't really need this $$$? It is dirty money as far as I am concerned, with large amounts taken from a few individuals. I have no issue w/ gambling, but these machines are clearly a drain on our society. If they are the sole reason keeping various establishments afloat, this shouldn't be a sufficient reason to permit them. Would a middle ground option would be to permit an individual machine to have a maximum take each day?? This would limit the collective loss to ALC's clients/addicts.

  • Kent
    March 25, 2014 - 07:01

    These garbage machines are the electronic equivalent of crystal meth.. The only difference is that VLTs ruin lives much faster... They should be banned from all bars and night-clubs. Most of the dives that have them probably wouldn't last a week without them.

  • brett
    March 25, 2014 - 06:34

    It sounds like John doe wants a safety net. A way to make sure they can gamble and not lose. He does not want help, he does not want to stop gambling. A machine taking 650k is not important, the net number of $ spent spinning the wheel vs. $ paid out by the machine is the key. Quite frankly the degenerate gamblers will put all their money into the machine over time anyways, and they will get progressively worse at it. The machines are not getting worse, the mindset of the gamblers is. The machine pays out 93 cents on a dollar bet. And a lot of payouts don't cover the 20 lines that are being paid, so even on a large never of payouts the player is still losing money. I would love to have a private business that allows me to pay $1.93 if you guess heads/tails correctly when I flip a coin but I get a dollar every time we decide to flip. In fact let's take out the variance and I'll just pay out 97 cents every time we flip a coin, but you pay me a dollar. I'm not making light of the addiction,but this article doesn't look at the real problem, and what the people with addictions really want.

    • Marty
      March 25, 2014 - 17:16

      Brett, don't how you came up with that scenario from reading "John Doe's" comments. Problem gambling is a debilitating addiction. Due to shame and embarrassment the addict usually hits rock bottom before reaching out for help. If you knew anything about addiction, you would know for an addict, it's not as simple as just stopping. I have known people so desperate to stop they have considered suicide. This is not a game, it destroys good people who were contributing members of society and the collateral damage to their family and friends is heartbreaking.

    • Marty
      March 25, 2014 - 17:17

      Brett, don't how you came up with that scenario from reading "John Doe's" comments. Problem gambling is a debilitating addiction. Due to shame and embarrassment the addict usually hits rock bottom before reaching out for help. If you knew anything about addiction, you would know for an addict, it's not as simple as just stopping. I have known people so desperate to stop they have considered suicide. This is not a game, it destroys good people who were contributing members of society and the collateral damage to their family and friends is heartbreaking.