Feb. 23, 2003. 01:00 AM
New numbers link gambling, suicide
10% of victims in Alberta gambled Betting's social cost in spotlight


OTTAWA—Two provinces have uncovered startling statistics linking gambling to suicides, raising new questions about the social costs of legalized betting in Canada.

The Canadian Press has learned that Alberta recorded gambling in the files of 10 per cent of suicide victims in 2001, while Nova Scotia investigators found it was a factor in 6.3 per cent of suicides in the last two years.

The numbers collected by medical examiners are much higher than previously recorded rates. They're likely the result of more intensive investigations of suicides in those provinces, yielding more information, experts say.

Now the research is raising concerns about how data is collected across Canada and what the figures mean.

Dr. James Young, Ontario's chief coroner, said he'll take the issue to a national gathering of provincial coroners in June.

"(Alberta is) considering in that number any time they hear anything to do with gambling and they're linking that as one of the causative factors, which is fair. I'm not critical of that at all."

He noted Ontario's numbers are much lower — just 17 suicides linked to gambling since 1997 — but said Ontario's numbers might be comparable to Alberta's if a similar system were adopted.

"We've counted it where it's clear that (gambling) is very, very much the primary thing."

Some suicide experts like Antoon Leenaars in Windsor, Ont., think all provinces should be evaluating the deaths more comprehensively.

While suicide can never be reduced to any one factor, the Alberta and Nova Scotia numbers clearly show that "gambling may be a significant one" in more suicides than previously realized, said Leenaars, former head of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

"We need much more in-depth study and much more open-mindedness at coroners' offices," he said. "(The numbers are) pointing out the risk is high. We need to understand this better."

In Alberta last year, gambling was listed in the files of 48 suicides out of 418 counted so far; in 2001, in 46 of 482 cases; and in 2000, in 54 of 430 suicides.

Mary-Ellen Arnup, a statistician with the chief medical examiner's office, said the province's medical investigators record gambling on the file of any suicide victim if a relative or friend mentions it or there's evidence of gambling at the scene of death.

They do not ask about gambling if no one raises it, she said.

In Nova Scotia, a new interrogation system adopted by the chief medical examiner's office in 2001 requires investigators to ask relatives of every suicide victim whether gambling played a role in the death.

Out of 159 confirmed suicides between January, 2001 and September, 2002, 10 were linked to gambling addiction as a cause.

The Alberta and Nova Scotia figures far surpass those in Quebec, until now thought to have the highest recorded rate of suicides linked to gambling in Canada at about 2.6 per cent or 33 of 1,268 suicides in 1999.

The total number of suicides related to gambling in that province has reached 124 cases since 1994.

In Quebec, the victim must leave a note identifying gambling as a factor or a family member must mention it.

The new figures strengthen arguments for closer government attention to the social costs of gambling, argued Jason Azmier, a senior policy analyst with the Canada West Foundation, an independent Calgary-based research agency.

Azmier said betting expansion should cease until a national body, preferably the federal government, takes up the mammoth task of tracking related social impacts.

Federal governments in the United States and Australia have funded national impact studies.

Health Minister Anne McLellan said last week that the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, partly funded by her department, could play a greater role in assessing problem gambling countrywide.

Ottawa left gambling in provincial hands in 1979 in exchange for a small annual cut of the profits, about $50 million a year. The resulting vacuum of national data is troubling, said Azmier, especially as evidence of real suffering mounts.

Gambling is big business to the provinces and territories that run lotteries, casinos and VLTs — worth $6 billion in 2001.

While most Canadians simply gamble for fun, studies show that between three and five per cent — up to 1.5 million people — develop moderate to severe gambling problems.

Those numbers double for young people.

There's also new evidence that low-income Canadians are suffering disproportionate rates of problem gambling.

Critics say governments don't set aside nearly enough of their profits for education, treatment and prevention of gambling addiction.

Two lawsuits have been launched, against Ontario and Quebec, by compulsive bettors who were financially ruined.

But no cost is higher than death.

It's likely that the Alberta numbers are more accurate than other provinces in reflecting the extent to which gambling is a factor — though not necessarily the single factor — in many suicides, said Arnup, the Alberta statistician.

"In probably a fair number of them, yes, (gambling) was probably major enough that it was one of the factors," she said.

Alberta medical investigator Dennis Caufield says gambling-related suicides increased after addictive VLTs were installed in 1992. "Absolutely, without a doubt... It's almost like it was the beginning — the genesis of suicide because of gambling coincided with VLTs," he said.

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