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How to avoid gambling dangers, from slots to high-risk investing

·Marlene Skaff
A visitor tries a slot machine during the Macao Gaming Show in Macau November 14,2013.The event will cover gaming industry segments such as casino fixtures, VIP clubs, gaming equipment and accessories, according to its official press release. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu (CHINA - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY) (REUTERS)

Gambling isn't just about playing cards, slots or the lottery - even investing can be risky, and all can amount to huge personal and financial losses.

Still, it’s hard to resist stories such as the recent $40-million win by a Mississauga, Ont., ticketholder for the revamped Lotto 649.

But the reality is, “in every betting game, the odds are against the player,” stresses the Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario. For instance, you’re 250 times more likely to be hit by lightning (1 in 56,439) than win Lotto 649 (about 1 in 14 million), says the institute, a division of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

“Most people who gamble don’t get in trouble, but you can lose control," Jon Kelly, CEO of the Responsible Gambling Council of Ontario (RGC), says on the phone from his Toronto office.

Kelly says only about 1 per cent of the population has a severe gambling problem – to the point where it can wreck relationships, health and job status - while another two per cent have some sort of gambling issue that may drift in and out of their lives.

Groups such as the non-profit RGC as well as the Problem Gambling Institute, which lists several Canadian resources for those with a problem, work to raise awareness of the potential dangers, especially this time of year as we assess our finances heading into the holiday spending and tax planning seasons.

Starting in September, the RGC began holding Problem Gambling Prevention Week events across Ontario that run through December. It’s also gearing up for a social marketing campaign for the New Year focusing on raising awareness about a key sign of a gambling problem: “the chase,” or gambling more to gain back losses.

According to a recent RGC report “What’s the Problem With Problem Gambling?”, 300,000 people in Ontario alone are experiencing moderate to severe gambling problems. The report highlights personal stories of gambling run amok, including: “I work full-time nights and by the time my wages go into my bank I take it out and gamble it. Please can you help. I am really in over my head and I can’t stop,” one financially-devastated individual is quoted as saying.

The financial repercussions can be startling: Among individuals with gambling problems, research indicates:

  • 90 per cent report gambling with their paycheques or family savings.

  • Over 60 per cent report borrowing money from friends and relatives to avoid credit problems.

  • 60-70 per cent have accumulated indebtedness to financial institutions.

  • 30 per cent report gambling debts ranging from $75,000 to $150,000.

Kelly notes that people who overindulge in traditional gambling such as casinos, lotteries and the like also tend to have a higher prospect of other chancy behaviour, such as making high-risk investments, including over-investing in day trading - the buying and selling of a security within one trading day.

Kelly says the RGC urges consumers to look at gambling as "a seductive thing. The key to low-risk gambling is to remember that it’s only a game. It’s entertainment, a mental holiday – if you start thinking of it as a way to make money, you’re likely to get into trouble."

In his 15 years with the RGC, Kelly has seen a shift in how a gambling problem is determined and treated.

While long seen as an obsessive compulsive disorder, like a sexual or stealing addiction, problem gambling is increasingly being considered a disorder of excess on its own, which could lead to more tailor-made ways to treat the behaviour, he says.

How do you know if you should seek help?

“There’s a tool for diagnosing a gambling problem, … but essentially it’s about if your gambling is excessive to the point it interferes with the rest of your life,” says Kelly. “Most of us spend about 2 per cent of our income on gambling, but gamblers with a severe problem will average about 20 per cent of their incomes.”

Besides urging people never to “chase” losses and not to think of gambling as a money-making venture, the RGC offers other safer-gambling tips, which can be found by clicking here.