There was a time when VLTs and the harm they cause were front and centre. Public pressure forced the Nova Scotia government to pull the gambling machines from corner stores, and stories of addiction led to a spate of studies and measures to lessen the damage.

The machines continue to harm players, and governments, businesses and clubs earn tens of millions in profits, yet the pressure to do something isn’t what it was.

The gambling goes on in bars and non-profit clubs that can’t even put up a sign outside saying VLTs are present, and often in an area separated from the rest of the premise. It’s largely out of sight, and the people losing generally don’t talk about it.

Groups such as Game Over VLTs, which once led a high-profile campaign against the machines, no longer exist, and political leaders rarely talk about the issue anymore. It might also seem that most Nova Scotians have ceased to care.

At the same time, the flow of money to businesses and decisions made years ago on First Nations gaming, may restrain the ability of governments to exit the business.

Andrew Younger, who was the gaming minister under Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government from 2013 to 2015.

He said his personal view is the faster VLTs go the better. “I would go into a bar for a meeting, and I would see someone playing at a VLT, and I would leave a few hours later, and the same person was still on the VLT. And that would always bother me, because I would always wonder, are they a problem gambler, or are they not? And, what can we do about this?”

But while problem gambling was an important issue at the time, mostly in terms of the health department’s responsibility for treatment of problem gamblers, it seemed to be a small group overall, and he didn’t hear about VLTs from voters in either the 2009 or the 2013 provincial election.

“We obviously, during elections, go and we do a lot of surveying, what are the top issues for people, and it didn’t crack the top 10.”

He questions how much the Conservatives or NDP had actually done about VLTs. “I think under all governments, all three parties I mean. . .there was always a bit of friction between the Department of Health and Health Promotion, which was responsible for the addiction side of it, and the Atlantic Lotto Corporation, which ultimately were the ones who managed VLTs on behalf of each of the provinces.”

Graham Steele was both the finance and gaming minister in Darrell Dexter’s one-term NDP government. Now he is the information and privacy commissioner in Nunavut. Steele says money was not a key to decision making, it being a small proportion of overall government revenues. But politics weighed more heavily.

“I’ve sat in these places; the bar is empty and the separate section with VLTs is full and that’s what’s keeping the bar open,” Steele said in an interview. This is one reason he shifted from an earlier position, which he had while in opposition, to get rid of the VLTs, to one that, in his mind, tried to find a balance between the damage they caused to some players, and the safe entertainment he feels they give others.

”So, for a politician you had to realize, especially when you’re the minister you’re actually in charge of stuff, that you have to be very careful about what you do, because it’s going to affect bars and restaurants and the legions, many of which would close if they didn’t have the VLT revenues.”

Younger said after the Liberals took over, there was pressure from businesses to scrap the attrition policy and increase the number of VLTs.

“I don’t know whether they were right or wrong, but there were a lot of business owners that felt they were going to need VLTs to compete and keep business and compete against these (First Nations) gaming centres that were opening up.”

Those gaming centres are the other big challenge for any government that might want to scrap VLTs.

Even if the province got rid of all the VLTs under its direct control, players could still go to First Nations.

The First Nations machines can operate for longer hours than the ones controlled by the province, and are often in purpose-built facilities.

First Nations VLTs are hooked up to the same Atlantic Lottery Corporation network as the ones in other businesses and non-profits, but operate under separate, undisclosed agreements between the province and individual First Nations. We asked for the latest versions of those agreements, but the province said releasing even a single word would damage relations with the First Nations and harm to the finances or economy of Nova Scotia. This reversed a decision by the same office in 2015 to release earlier versions of the agreements, although the earlier decision was made only after a complaint to the Information Commissioner and only after several years. The new decision is once again subject of a request for a review by the commissioner.

To get rid of VLTs in First Nations as part of a provincewide ban arguably could mean repudiating a cornerstone of the province’s policy related Mi’kmaw communities, because the machines produce large amounts of money used for economic development by the First Nations.

That means any government would have to tread carefully.

But others say not taking action is worse.

Peter McKenna, a University of Prince Edward Island political science professor who wrote a book critical of the machines, says nothing short of a ban will solve the problems they create. He argues that VLTs have dropped off the public radar in part because of sophisticated government messaging “to convince people that it’s an entertainment, it’s a night out, its gaming, it’s fun.”

That he said, is paired with a narrative that goes like this: there’s a responsible gaming strategy, a 1-800 number for problem gamblers and the money does good things.

“It’s about deflecting attention.”

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This story is part of the 'Numbers Game: Video lottery keeps on spinning, and Nova Scotians keep on getting hurt' series.
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