Its allure reaching youth as young as 12. Gambling can look exciting when a small bet can almost magically be transformed into a pile of cash.
It's an unseasonably warm and sunny October day, but Joseph Majic is holed up at the dimly lit casino in Hull, Quebec.
The Carleton University commerce student headed over to the casino on the other side of the Ottawa River after his morning classes in statistics and organizational theory. It's barely 4 p.m., and he's already lost $700 at the blackjack table. “It's a controlled addiction. I feel the need to come here,” says Majic. “It started out as an outing, but now it's more business than pleasure.”
At 21, he's hardly alone. The grey-haired crowd at the Hull casino tend to gravitate to the slot machines, but Majic and his cohorts hold a special place here, and in Canada's gambling scene, still considered by many as harmless adult entertainment.
While parents and educators fuss about cigarettes, booze and drugs, it turns out more teens engage in gambling than in the other potentially addictive behaviours. According to the International Centre for Youth Gambling at McGill University, more than half of Canadian youngsters aged 12 to 17 are considered recreational gamblers, 10 to 15 per cent are at risk for developing a severe problem and four to six per cent are considered “pathological gamblers.”
Young adults aged 18 to 24 are two to four times more likely to develop a problem with gambling than the general adult population. These days, it seems the allure of gambling reaches kids early on in life. A child could receive lottery or scratch tickets in their stocking at Christmas or wager five bucks on a silly playground stunt at recess. A bunch of young guys might go online to bet on the week's football or hockey games, or even head to the local casino for a buddy's 19th-birthday bash.
“We're beginning to think that gambling is becoming something of a rite-of-passage activity for youth,” says John Macdonald, youth specialist at the Problem Gambling Service at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
“This is the first generation that will grow up their entire lives when gambling is not only legal, but it's endorsed, supported and even owned by the state,” adds Jeffrey Derevensky, co-director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling at McGill University and leading Canadian researcher.
“We teach two things: study hard, work hard, and you'll be successful. But for a dollar, you could have cash for life and not have to work.”
That second message is a powerful pull for young people like Majic. The middle-class kid works all summer in construction, then spends the academic year wagering some of his summer earnings at the Hull casino.
“I could work for 10 hours at $7 an hour for 70 bucks, or I could come here and I could make that in a matter of minutes,” says Majic, a third-year student at Carleton University.
Robert Williams, professor of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge and a research co-ordinator with the Alberta Gaming Research Institute, works to dash these expectations. He recently completed a study to test whether knowledge of the dismal gambling probabilities results in a drop in gambling among first-year university students.
“The idea was if the students really knew what the odds were, it would change their behaviour,” Williams said of the study involving students enrolled in an introductory statistics class that extensively probed gambling probabilities.
“It didn't. It didn't change the behaviour at all, even though students learned everything they needed to know – the odds are stacked against them in every game that exists, and they can't win in the long run. It was a very unexpected and counterintuitive finding.”
Just ask Majic. He once lost $1,000 at the blackjack table in just one day, but last week, he won $7,000. Majic knows he's still down overall, but such an acknowledgment isn't enough to keep him away from the casino. “Am I up overall? No, nobody is,” the business student pronounces matter-of-factly.
No wonder anti-gambling advocates are trying to figure out the best teaching tool to prevent kids from catching the betting bug. The Adolescent Problem Gambling Index project, a joint research initiative launched this fall by several provinces, will propose a validated survey instrument for assessing gambling behaviour and identifying problem gambling among teens.
Meanwhile, the Alberta Gaming Research Institute is testing the effectiveness of a teen gambling prevention program at some Alberta high schools. Results of the field study are expected in January.
Majic could be the perfect poster child. The young man says he never wagers any money he doesn't have, but admits he keeps coming back. “A lot of times, I wish the casino never moved in,” he says of the establishment located a few kilometres away from where he attends university. He finishes his smoke break and returns to the blackjack table. It could be an early day: He has already withdrawn his maximum daily amount from the on-site bank machine – $800 – and he only has four chips left, each worth $25.
But, then again ...