St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud says the prospect of a regulated online gambling option and more provincial revenue is a positive move.
The Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission (AGLC), a provincial agency, is searching for contractors that offer online gaming services. The commission has issued a request for proposals and aims to give residents access to a roster of online games – such as lottery, poker and bingo – within 12 to 18 months.
Renaud told the Gazette Tuesday she is hopeful the AGLC will be able to address concerns about gambling addictions as it moves toward online gaming, and she is doubtful the move will impact brick-and-mortar gaming centres.
"(Online gambling) has been around for quite a long time, and people choose to do (it) – it's there," she said. "I think this is just a way to bring the revenues to Alberta and to regulate it as much as we can."
Chara Goodings, communications officer with the AGLC, said in a written statement the organization wants to provide a safe, regulated site for gaming.
“Online gambling isn’t new, and many Albertans already play on offshore sites. But these sites are unregulated and provide limited tools for responsible play,” she said.
According to the AGLC, each year Albertans spend about $358 million on unregulated, unprotected offshore gaming websites.
Renaud said she feels offering a regulated option for the leisure activity is a step in the right direction.
“This is a way to bring some regulation, and put some regulation into place in Alberta, whether that's, you know, age verification or monitoring usage, so that's a good thing," she said.
The AGLC licenses and regulates charitable gaming, licenses gaming establishments and owns and maintains all of the province's slot machines, VLTs, lottery terminals and electronic Bingos. Online gaming, however, is not currently one of the commission's roles, although it has looked at introducing online gaming in the past.
But one addictions researcher is concerned about what the new site will mean for some of Alberta’s most vulnerable.
“It is somewhat disappointing,” said Daniel McGrath, chair of the Alberta Gambling Research Institute and gambling researcher at University of Calgary, of AGLC's announcement.
“Anytime you reduce the barriers to entry for gambling, the concern would be that more people, who maybe were gambling at a safe level, may start gambling more, or you'll introduce new people to gambling,” he explained.
Additionally, increasing access to a variety of online games from the comfort of one's home could have a negative impact on people already struggling with gambling addiction.
Alberta and Saskatchewan are the only two provinces in Canada that currently don’t offer regulated online gaming services. McGrath said he was surprised the AGLC hadn’t created the website earlier.
With the organization set on launching its new site, he hopes additional funds will be put toward addiction services and programs in the province.
Currently, around five per cent of Albertans struggle with gambling addiction. One per cent are considered problem gamblers, which occurs when gambling creates debt and gets in the way of work and personal relationships. Four per cent are at moderate risk, but don’t fit the criteria for problem gambling.
The AGLC couldn’t say by press time if the site would actually draw people away from using unregulated sites, but according to Goodings, unregulated sites often don’t have customer service, or can’t guarantee consumer protection and security. Some sites will shut down overnight, taking the customer’s money with them.
"A regulated site provides consumers with the guarantee of privacy, customer service and the highest (level) of security," she stated.
The successful contractor will have to incorporate a variety of social responsibility tools into the website, the AGLC said. That could include: time limits, bet limits and information and contact details for addiction programs. The website would also require the player to put in their date of birth before they can access the site.
The contractor would also need to incorporate the AGLC’s GameSense programs into the site, which offers education about gambling.
“GameSense has been successful in providing responsible gambling features in the casino environment and we want online players to have access to the same tools online,” Goodings said.
So far, dozens of prospective vendors have submitted bids.