"I have been advocating for change to governments' gambling policies since our son died by suicide 9 years ago"

By Phyllis Vineberg

International Problem Gambling Conference
Insight Nova Scotia, Halifax

October 4, 2004

Gambling-Related Suicides: A Real Risk of Preventing Precaution

I have been advocating for change to governments' gambling policies since our son died by suicide 9 years ago resulting from the senseless expansion of legalized gambling into our communities with accessibility to electronic gambling machines in over 4000 venues.

I have appeared on several television and radio news and documentary programs in Canada and the U.S. I have told our son's story for the pages of the Montreal Gazette, Maclean's, The Calgary Sun, The Calgary Herald, The Toronto Star, South Carolina's-The State, La Presse, The Globe and Mail, The McGill Reporter, Le Journal de Montreal, The Ottawa Citizen, The National Post and others.

I have traveled to Calgary to support citizens in their battle to remove VLTs from their communities, provided some of the impetus to the chief coroner of Quebec to reveal the large number of suicides related to VLTs and shared information with advocates across the globe in an attempt to inform the public. I have recently become a member of a coalition in Quebec, called EMJEU, (Ethique pour une moderation du Jeu), whose mission is to ensure ethical social policy in the management of gambling. (www.emjeu.com)

My role in advocating for consumer protection and ethical social policy has not become any easier, but it has become much more important. Today more youth are involved in gambling activities than any other addictive behaviours, and experts are admitting a problem amongst youth which not so long ago was 2 times, but now is reported to be 3 times greater than that exhibited by the adult population.

This is not a journey I would have chosen for myself, but I am compelled to speak out against the exploitation of an uninformed public. I am compelled to speak out because our son and family could be any child and family in North America, and many other countries in the world today. I am compelled to speak out because thousands of innocent people are being affected each day.

I have persevered for 9 years for very good reasons. I am sure you will understand why a mother, whose loss was so great, stands before you to extol the virtues of her son. Trevor was especially kind and considerate. He would not even kill a fly. He was devoted to his family and friends. He was an optimist. He had a sense of humour. He was hardworking. He had the potential to make a positive contribution to the world we live in. It was unimaginable that he would die by suicide.

Our son Trevor was not dysfunctional or sick before his introduction to electronic gambling machines in his late teens in arcades near our home that provided accessibility to their young patrons in the form of video poker. Two years before our son died, in 1995 at the age of 25, the government of Quebec chose to increase the accessibility to electronic gambling machines by placing over 15,000 of them into more than 4000 venues. What is even worse many of these venues are youth-oriented, and include restaurants, bowling alleys, billiard halls and yes, the back rooms of arcades. If that is not enough, they can be found in our communities, near high schools, colleges and universities. To ensure ready access to a bank account, ATM machines are located a few steps away in the same premises.

Our son could not escape them, when he attended college in a West Island suburb, or his courses in Hotel and Restaurant Management at LaSalle College in downtown Montreal. He could not escape them when he worked part-time, where they could be found in a restaurant across the street. He could not escape them when he joined his friends for a game of billiards or bowling. He could not escape them in his last full time occupation at Mirabel Airport, where they could be found in the nearby hotel complex. The machines cleaned him out of his hard-earned wages each and every week.

Shortly before his death, I remember him telling me how much he would like to try inline skating. Sadly he never had enough money to buy himself a pair of inline skates. We have calculated that he lost more than $100,000, having worked part-time and full time since the age of 16. The number of ways he could have spent his money, needless to say, are too numerous to mention. He made so many promises and had so many plans, and we wanted so much to believe him and trust him.

Recognizing the problems his addiction to VLTs were causing him he chose to seek help. He attended GA meetings and weekend retreats for gamblers. He celebrated his first year anniversary at GA and we thought he was cured. Although we attended GAMANON, the anonymity and secrecy imposed on the gamblers only led to our family's failure to understand the issues. We were never provided with the proper information concerning the deceptive and addictive qualities of electronic gambling. We were never advised of the issue of relapse and suicide as an ever-present danger, especially amongst machine gamblers.

Unfortunately, unknown to us, our son succumbed to the VLT one more time. Our son had established a GA meeting in our community for the younger gambler just two weeks before his death. In the last year of his life, he never spent his days in bed. He did not appear to be depressed. He never cried. He never shared his problems with us, even though we had encouraged him to do so. He did not ask us to bail him out financially. The last time I spoke with him he told me he was extremely tired. He died in his car in the garage of our family home. After his death, we discovered his briefcase in his car. It contained records of his bank withdrawals and his debt of $10,000 to a finance company at a usurious interest. He was three months behind on his car payments.

Our son was an only child for 18 years until his sister was born. He was so pleased having an addition to the family, he handed out chocolate cigars to his friends. His sister adored him. She was only 7 years old when her brother died by suicide.

Why would our son rather die than admit he needed help once again? Was he so consumed with guilt and shame? Did he want to spare his family additional suffering? Had the thought of fighting a gambling addiction the rest of his life also contributed to his feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Slowly our son internalized all the stigma and despair that surrounded him. He came to believe that he was useless, helpless and hopeless. He learned to settle for less and less and actually began to believe that he was all he could be. It was a type of dying: the death of hope, the death of dreams, the death of his humanness and his individuality.

I suffered a severe depression after his death. Not only was I grieving his loss, but I became even more overwhelmed and incapacitated because of my concern over the impact of his loss on our daughter. In addition to dealing with his own grief, and making a living for the rest of his family, Trevor's Dad had to become a caregiver to his wife and daughter. I still wonder how he went to work each day with the image of his son asphyxiated in his car. You see he was the one to find him.

I became obsessed with finding out why a fine, sensitive, ambitious young man, with a zest for life and a promising future would die by suicide in the prime of his life. At first in my shock and grief, I wanted to protect our son's reputation and the reputation of our family. As I began to deal with my grief and to understand his problem, I realized that his reputation and our family's reputation did not need protecting. We did nothing wrong.

My struggle has led me to the unfathomable realization that it is our own governments who are preying on their citizens - the young, the old, the weak and the vulnerable. My struggles led me to the unimaginable realization that a gambling machine can cause such hardship, that for thousands, suicide seems like the only way out. I have calculated that since our son's death, 9 years ago, there have been enough gambling-related suicides in Canada to fill 2 Titanics. Just as concerning, research shows that the rates of deliberate self-harming behaviours, including serious suicide attempts, may be 100 times higher than rates of suicide deaths.

I am here today, not with a fancy Powerpoint presentation, but rather with a powerful point to make. I am here today, with my wonderful daughter to provide the industry and our governments with an opportunity to look the future in the eye.

Our governments and the gambling industry are causing significant harm to Canadian citizens. Over one million Canadian adults are already documented in serious trouble, with an important additional number at risk. The vast majority impact their family and others. Based on the figures provided by prevalence studies today, and adding to that the ripple effect, it is not an exaggeration, that as many as 20%, 6 million Canadian citizens, have been negatively impacted by the senseless expansion of legalized gambling and the lack of adequate prevention and education, and legislation and regulation of the gambling industry.

There is a lack of public awareness concerning the long-term implications of the cohort or the ripple effect resulting from problem gambling and suicide. For every person affected by problem gambling or who dies by suicide, another 5 to 15 people in his or her circle suffer. Tragically, when someone dies by suicide the pain is not gone, merely transferred to those around them including family, friends and communities. While it has been more than 9 years, the effects of our son's loss are still felt each day by our family.

Families have a triple burden. They must struggle with the devastating effects of their loved ones' problem gambling. Then they encounter a treatment system that fails to deal with the problem, and the gambler's distress is compounded because they are subjected to pathological treatments which discover and focus on personal deficits. In addition the family and the problem gambler must face the negative and misinformed attitudes of society. Stigma is one of the greatest barriers to improved mental health today. It is our governments, stakeholders and the gambling industry who create the stigma because they promote gambling as a benign recreational activity without dangers.

I have a science degree and a masters degree in library and information studies. I am not ignorant of science and the scientific method. But my most important credential is that I am a mother. I know what is at stake. And I have had to learn the very hard way our leaders are failing, and their failure seriously and tragically impacts our families' and our childrens' lives.

Soon after our son died, I asked a leading youth gambling researcher for some of the youth-related gambling studies he had completed. He suggested that I wouldn't understand them. If something is too complicated to explain, perhaps it is also too complicated to be safe.

Industry messages have been put into the mouths of seemingly trustworthy sources, our researchers and scientists. Many scientists are trading off their values to reach an acceptable compromise. There is no acceptable compromise when public health and well-being are concerned. There is much evidence today which reveals that researchers have amassed tons of research which is mainly directed at satisfying the needs of its sponsor. This is already a problem in the U.S. where the pedigree of a piece of research has become the surest guide to its findings. Words cannot express the rage and concern I have when I see quoted in our newspapers that studies conducted at McGill University "indicate an alarming increase in the number of people under 25 now experiencing gambling problems". This increase has been predictable. Many of you in the audience already know what kind of future awaits these young people.

Gambling expansion has been imposed on the public, in many cases against our will. Our families have become burdened with great risks to our health and well-being by products and activities that not so long ago were considered illegal and immoral. The new technologies are dangerous and misunderstood. The risks of a gambling addiction are not clearly understood because industry-financed propaganda campaigns have created a vacuum of information. The exposures that cause the disease are only a symptom of a deeper problem - corporate denial regarding the deadly risks associated with an increase in accessibility to dangerous products. The experts who have created the new gambling technologies and the experts who encourage us to use them can no longer afford to remain blind to the human suffering that gambling expansion continues to cause. We must begin to set limits on its accessibility.

How many problem gambling prevention programs are in existence today? We had one in our province a few years ago that recommended that secondary IV students who are only 16 years old set aside 3% of their budget to gamble, so the games remain a game. Thankfully it was removed from our schools. I haven't seen a prevention program since. Why haven't parents been given truthful information so that they can serve in their most important role as the first line of prevention? One does not have to be a genius to recognize the dangers of a gambling dependency prevention program that recommends 16 year old youth gamble responsibly with 3% of their budget. It is a shameful example of the risk imposed on our youth and families by our governments, stakeholders, and the gambling industry who work together to ensure increased revenues at all costs. How much longer can our governments encourage policy that subordinates health to profits? The risks created by the legalized expansion of gambling are real. Risks to public safety are real. It is in nobody's interest to prevent precaution. We must have zero tolerance for preventable harm. Our public policy must promote the dignity and sanctity of all human life.

Surely the increased awareness of the dangers of gambling products, like the egm, and the increasing threat of litigation hang over the heads of gambling industry executives and all those who provide services in the problem gambling field. Does anyone truly believe that electronic gambling machines are a great industrial and technological advance and that they are everything that modern society has come to see as desirable indicators of progress? The public will not continue to suspend judgment and abandon responsibility to the experts who have already surrendered their responsibility to their paymasters.

My daughter is not yet an advocate, but the seed has been sown. She is attending her last year of high school where she is an excellent student and studies in three languages. She earned first place in an art competition among twenty schools in Montreal this year. She is on a winning competitive dance team. Her goal, ever since she was a little girl, is to become a lawyer. I repeat, I am here today with my daughter to provide the industry and our governments with an opportunity to look the future in the eye. Our son had the same potential to continue to make a positive contribution to the world we live in.

In my early communication with the media, because I bought the myths and misinformation, and the lack of truth in advertising, I represented my son as a pathological gambler. The sickness did not lay within him however. The truth is he was just an uninformed consumer exposed to the lethal effects of a dangerous and addictive product. Our family, like so many others, was deliberately misled about the risks of addiction, about the power and structure of unsafe electronic gambling machines, about youth-directed marketing. Problem gamblers and their families continue to suffer from the stigma and prejudice that is reinforced constantly by the PR of the gambling industry that promotes responsible gambling. One cannot gamble responsibly on an addictive and fraudulent gambling machine.

Advertising and promotion, by those responsible for gambling, fail to meet the tests of truthfulness and responsibility. The legal requirements for advertising and promoting products known to be addictive have been deliberately ignored for the sake of profit.

The stigma associated with gambling addictions and suicide and the lack of public awareness about gambling issues, prohibits open discussion, a coordinated approach to finding solutions, and help for people who need it the most. Our governments and their affiliated health and social service agencies must inform and educate the public. We must move away from the personal responsibility, blame the victim approach. We must all challenge the legitimacy and credibility of the industry marketing the product. The debate must be reframed to expose the gambling industry's role in the misery and devastation that our families are suffering.

I will never get over the loss of our son. Because of his sudden and unexpected death, I still suffer from bouts of depression and anxiety. I have lost trust and confidence in our leaders and do not live with the same optimism that once guided my life and made its journey worthwhile. I intend to fight this battle as long as is necessary however, because I know one day justice will be served. We are moving in the right direction. I have every confidence that the class action lawsuit in Quebec will be won. I don't know how it can be otherwise.

It is critical that gambling-related suicides and suicide attempts are tracked in every province in Canada. Several Canadian and U.S. studies have estimated the cost of a suicide death to range from $433,000 to $4,131,000 per individual depending on potential years of life lost, income level and effects on survivors. One study completed in New Brunswick estimated the average direct and indirect cost per suicide at $850,000. The estimated cost of attempted suicide ranges from $33,000 to $308,000 per individual depending on the hospital services and rehabilitation required and the family disruption and support required following the attempt. This information is available in the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention's Blueprint for a Strategy to Reduce Suicide and its Impact, released April 19, 2004. The cost to society of gambling-related suicides and suicide attempts is staggering.

The true and very high cost of governments' addiction to gambling can already be measured. Normal, once healthy families, very much like my own, continue to suffer irreparable harm that is, and has always been preventable. I will never regret the efforts I have made on behalf of my daughter's and future generations.

In the audience today are 2 other parents who have lost a child to suicide resulting from a gambling machine addiction, Sandy and Don Bishop from New Brunswick. Thank you for your support.

Phyllis Vineberg