VANCOUVER — British Columbia is hoping to cash in on an estimated $100 million gambled by its residents on offshore websites each year by becoming the first jurisdiction in North America to offer legal, online casino gaming.
The province insisted Thursday the money collected through its online casino will be redirected to services like health care and education.
Critics blasted the plan, calling it irresponsible, while others predict it won’t have much of an impact on gamblers.
As of Thursday, residents can log on to the B.C. Lottery Corp.’s PlayNow.com website and wager on games like blackjack, roulette and craps. Peer-to-peer poker is expected later this year, and money can also be put down on bingo, sports bets and lotteries.
Rich Coleman, the province’s housing and social development minister, told reporters the hard reality is that gambling activity isn’t going anywhere and the Liberal government wants to ensure money gambled in B.C. stays in B.C.
“We could stay on the sidelines, pretend the situation doesn’t exist and watch revenues slip, but more importantly, ignore what should be better for our citizens in our province,” he said.
“Or we could provide (an) online gaming option like others that is accountable to British Columbians, that is secure, that protects their information and employs the highest levels of integrity and security of any system in the world.”
Coleman said B.C. has worked with other jurisdictions in Canada that he expects will soon unveil similar plans. He didn’t identify any and didn’t take questions following the announcement.
Online gambling, globally, is a $20 billion a year industry. About $610 million of that is wagered online from Canada.
PlayNow.com took in $34 million in revenue in the last fiscal year, which accounted for one per cent of the Crown corporation’s total revenue. That number is expected to increase to $100 million in revenue by 2014.
Michael Graydon, the lottery corporation’s president and chief executive officer, said the online gambling industry itself is nothing new and tapping into the market is sensible.
He added PlayNow.com has numerous safeguards in place, including on-screen reminders that detail the risks associated with gambling. A clock also displays how long users have been online and there’s a pre-set deposit limit.
The website is available to B.C. residents who are independently confirmed upon registration to be 19 years of age or older. About 140,000 British Columbians are already registered with PlayNow.com.
“Our research indicates that over 11 per cent of British Columbians have gambled online on international sites for money,” Graydon said.
“These players now have a choice to play on a safe, secure and regulated website where the revenue will stay in B.C. to benefit British Columbians.”
The lottery corporation said any problem gamblers who are enrolled in its voluntary self-exclusion program will be banned from the website.
Coleman conceded last month, however, that there are a number of problems with the self-exclusion program and that not enough is done to stop gambling addicts.
Shane Simpson, the New Democrat housing and social development critic, took in Thursday’s news conference and wasted little time blasting the decision.
“I’m not quibbling about us being involved in gaming, I don’t have a problem with that, I don’t have a problem with us getting resources out of that and moving forward,” he said.
“I have a serious problem with what I see as an irresponsible action by the minister.”
Simpson said the province cut funding for problem gambling by one-third in the last budget, just months after raising the weekly limit on PlayNow.com from $120 to $9,999.
“I’ve seen no evidence here that there are programs, or the work has been done, to ensure that people are going to be protected under this system,” he said.
“There is no evidence that they’ve advanced programs and we now have significant evidence that the one program they’ve had in place, which is substantive, has no enforcement and is a failure.”
Sarah Topham, a Vancouver addictions counsellor, said the foray can hardly be considered positive for British Columbians.
Internet gambling is one of the few types of wagering that is on the rise, she said.
“Internet gambling targets the young, who have undeveloped impulse control anyhow,” she said.
A spokesman for the Vancouver chapter of Gamblers Anonymous agreed, arguing gambling is already too prevalent.
“It just makes it more accessible for those people who are addicted,” he said. “It entices you, it’s a very addictive, insidious thing.”
A spokesman for the Gamblers Anonymous chapter in Victoria disagreed, saying he doesn’t think the site will have a major effect on gamblers.
“Gambling’s always accessible. My own personal experience would say that it wouldn’t change much for anybody,” he said.