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Online gambling off to a shaky start

Another milestone. B.C. is now the best place on Earth, or at least in North America, to lose serious money gambling in your own home. Drunk, desperate, addicted, the B.C.

Another milestone. B.C. is now the best place on Earth, or at least in North America, to lose serious money gambling in your own home.

Drunk, desperate, addicted, the B.C. government is giving every citizen the chance to lose more than $500,000 a year.

The government launched full-scale Internet gambling last week, becoming the first jurisdiction in North America to decide that letting people bet from home was a good idea.

It's a good idea for government revenues, to be sure. Gambling losses - lottery tickets, slots and the rest - are a big cash source for governments.

Since 2001, when the Liberals were elected on a promise to halt gambling expansion because it was destroying lives, government gambling revenues - and British Columbians' losses - have doubled.

Adults in B.C. lose an average $590 a year betting against the government. (Organized crime gave bettors a better deal when it ran Vegas.)

But about one-third of us don't gamble or just spend a small amount in scratch-and-lose tickets. The average loss for B.C. Lotteries core customers is more like $890,

The prize customers are the gamblers that casinos describe as "whales," the people who will keep on betting as they lose huge amounts.

It's a great business model. Set yourself up as a monopoly supplier of an addictive product - drugs, alcohol, gambling.

And then wait for your most lucrative customers - affluent, out-of-control addicts.

The Globe and Mail did a fine series last year on gambling. The newspaper filed freedom of information requests about the B.C. Lotteries "Gold Players Card." That's a customer loyalty program designed to keep big losers coming back to lose more. The card lets casinos and the Crown corporation know where the whales bet, how much they lose and the snacks they like.

The FOI request revealed 10 B.C. gamblers lost a combined $11.7 million in the previous year. Eight people gambled away more than $1 million each.

The 100 biggest losers lost an average $270,000 in the previous year.

Some of them might have been able to afford to lose $5,000 a week.

But some are suffering because of their gambling. So are their families.

Like any addict, the government can't get enough gambling revenue. New casinos, mini-casinos in smaller communities, small-time online betting - they all introduced to take more money from British Columbians.

The first online casino in North America offers the chance for another big leap in the amount of money we lose.

The government thinks so. Online B.C. Lotteries losses were limited to $120 a week up until last year. The goal was help keep people from falling into addiction and disaster.

But then the cabinet decided to raise the limit so gamblers could lose $9,999 a week. (At $10,000, the transaction would have to be reported to the federal government because of concerns about criminal money laundering. B.C. Lotteries revealed this week it has been fined $500,000 this week for violating federal anti-money laundering laws.)

The new online casino crashed when it was launched last Friday. B.C. Lotteries had been offering cash incentives to get more people to bet; at first the corporation blamed the problems on high demand.

On Tuesday, it revealed that the site's security had broken down. Some 130 gamblers' accounts - some with sensitive information - could be accessed by others. B.C. Lotteries is hiring a security firm to see if hackers were at work.

Gambling Minister Rich Coleman justified the expansion into online gambling by noting some British Columbians were already betting on the Internet using unregulated site. Better to provide them with a controlled gambling opportunity and keep the money in the province, he said.

But that's not really what the government is doing. It's promoting online gambling heavily and hopes to triple the take, to $100 million, in three years.

Online gambling is just another way for government to recruit more gamblers and increase the average amount each person loses - both approved goals for the lottery corporation each year.

Footnote: Online gambling poses greater risks of addiction and big losses, according to the government's responsible gambling website. A study released last year found online gamblers "play" more frequently and bet more aggressively than people who go to casinos.

Their gambling was easier to hide from friends and family.

About 35,000 British Columbians already have a severe gambling problem, according the B.C. Medical Association.