10/16/2013 05:06 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

B.C. Gambling Addictions Have More Than Doubled, Says Health Officer

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VANCOUVER - The number of severely addicted gamblers in British Columbia has more than doubled while the provincial government has taken in billions in gaming revenue, according to a new public health report.

The concerning figures have prompted provincial medical health officer Dr. Perry Kendall to call for more government investment in gambling prevention and treatment programs.

The report, released Wednesday, analysed data collected between 2002 and 2007. It showed that even though gambling activities have generally declined, the number of people with a severe gambling problem has risen from 13,000 to 31,000.

Annual gross gaming revenue for the provincial government has steadily increased between 2002 and 2012, going from $1.14 billion to $2.06 billion.

The percentage of problem gamblers among the people surveyed for the report remains relatively low at .9 per cent, Kendall said.

However, that figure increased from .4 per five years earlier, which suggests that more money is coming from a small group of problem gamblers who could become a public health concern, Kendall explained.

"Not very many people get hospitalized with a diagnosis of problem gambling, but if they do, they have considerably higher costs than somebody who doesn't have that diagnosis," he told reporters.

"They also have considerable overlap with mental health and addictions problems."

The study also showed that the number of electronic gaming machines, such as slot machines or electronic Bingo, has increased by over 210 per cent in the last decade.

Dr. Gerald Thomas, with the Centre of Addictions Research of British Columbia, helped write the report and said more machines lead to riskier gambling behaviour.

"One of the inducements in high-risk machines, for example, is near misses," he said.

"So you have three little things turning there, and all of a sudden it will show you that you've almost got the three, you've got two out of the three. Those kinds of inducements are designed to keep people at these machines and playing."

While the B.C. government has implemented various problem gambling prevention and treatment programs, it spends less than the national average of gaming revenue per capita on the issue, said the report.

In 2012, the province allocated $5.6 million, or 0.5 per cent of its gaming revenue, to problem gambling treatment. However, only a small percentage of problem gamblers took advantage of the intervention initiatives.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong said that the province and BC Lottery Corporation has invested in a number of treatment programs this year, including more than $20 million in various responsible-gambling programs that include clinical counselling and awareness campaigns.

BC Lottery Corporation's net income is redistributed by the provincial government each year to charities, local organizations, and used for health care or social services.

"Before further increasing spending for problem gambling programs and services, we’re going to review the outcomes of our current programs to ensure that we’re meeting the needs of our population," said de Jong in the written statement.

Kendall's report lists 17 recommendations to reduce the risk of problem gambling, including placing signs that show the risk rating of electronic gaming machines, reducing the number of machines, and restricting access to alcohol in gaming facilities.

The report comes in the wake of a proposal by Las Vegas-based Paragon Development Ltd. to develop a $535-million casino resort next to BC Place Stadium in Vancouver.

The so-called "urban resort" still needs to be approved by the City of Vancouver, but it is expected to include two luxury hotels, a conference centre, restaurants, spa and retail space, as well as incorporate an existing casino.

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