A medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health is advising the city not to go ahead with a proposed casino expansion.
In comments to city councillors at a second night of public hearings Tuesday (March 8), Dr. John Carsley said he had been asked to look at whether a major casino expansion would have an effect on problem gambling.
Carsley said the data on those potential impacts are contradictory, and don’t present a clear answer to the question.
“The literature and the state of the research just isn’t far enough advanced,” he said. “Even if it was settled it would be very difficult to quantify any increase or any potential health effect.”
But Carsley said the potential for an increase in problem gambling is a risk. He described the “devastating effects” that severe problem gambling can have, including family rupture, mental illness and attempted suicide.
“It is a risk should we go ahead, based on the literature,” he told council, noting that groups the most at risk of problem gambling include low-income residents, aboriginal people, the young and those with mental health and substance use problems.
“They would suffer disproportionately in any increase in problem gambling,” he said.
The health officer told reporters following the meeting that he’s advising council not to go ahead with the expansion to avoid the potential risk of an increase in problem gambling.
“Looking at the literature, there’s no way to say with certainty which it should be,” he said. “What do we do in public health when there’s uncertainty? Well we’ve been chided in the past for saying we’re not going to say anything until we have absolute evidence.”
“If there’s inconclusive evidence but there is evidence, then you make the prudent choice,” he added.
In a report to councillors, Carsley advised that, "faced with a potential hazard to health, I believe Council should be guided by caution."
"Research evidence is contradictory, but there exists the possibility of harm," he wrote. "Should the casino expansion proceed in the hope it will do no harm to our community's health, but later evidence shows the contrary, it will be very difficult to undo the damage."
In addition to recommending that council reject the proposal to expand Edgewater Casino, he also suggested in his report that the casino operator's contribution to the city's Social Responsibility Fund be increased in proportion to any increase in gambling revenue.
According to Carsley, B.C. spends the lowest proportion of gambling revenue and the lowest dollars per capita of any province on problem and responsible gambling, at $1.49 per adult in B.C. The average in Canada is over $3 per adult.
"The proportion of provincial gaming revenues targeted to problem and responsible gambling, the lowest in the country, is inadequate, as are funds identified for research into prevention," he wrote in his report.
Carsley called problem gambling a “prevalent disease” among the population. Council has heard that the prevalence rate of problem gambling among B.C. adults is 4.6 percent, with 1 percent of that comprised of severe problem gamblers.
“It’s a significant problem,” he told reporters.
The physician’s comments came at the end of a second public hearing Tuesday (March 8) evening into the mega-casino proposal.
If the plan is approved, Edgewater Casino would be moved from its current location at the Plaza of Nations to a site adjacent to B.C. Place as part of an 800,000-square-foot development, which would also include two hotels, restaurants and stores.
While several speakers earlier in the evening spoke in favour of the proposed Edgewater expansion and in support of jobs for casino workers, the majority of people addressing council Tuesday raised concerns about the plan.
Speakers included Patsy McMillan, co-chair of the False Creek Residents’ Association, who told council that more consultation should be conducted on the proposal.
“The issue of expanded gambling in Vancouver should be brought to the community of Vancouver as a whole,” she said. “Very little discussion has ensued regarding the tripling of gambling in downtown Vancouver, nor the issues that may or may not arise from the expansion.”
McMillan said the residents’ association had requested that Edgewater Casino operator Paragon Gaming meet with them to detail the plan, but no meeting was held with the group.
Councillors asked Carsley at the end of the meeting to return when the hearing resumes next Monday, March 14 to answer further questions.
An additional 150 speakers are still scheduled to address city council on the proposed development.
Tom Durrie, president of the Grandview-Woodland Area Council, speaks at the hearing.