Its allure reaching youth as young as 12. Gambling can look exciting when a small bet can
almost magically be transformed into a pile of cash.
New rite of passage for teens may just be
It's an unseasonably warm and sunny October day, but
Joseph Majic is holed up at the dimly lit casino in Hull, Quebec.
The Carleton University commerce student headed over to the casino on
the other side of the Ottawa River after his morning classes in
statistics and organizational theory. It's barely 4 p.m., and he's
already lost $700 at the blackjack table. “It's a controlled addiction. I feel the need to come here,” says Majic.
“It started out as an outing, but now it's more business than pleasure.”
At 21, he's hardly alone. The grey-haired crowd at the Hull casino
tend to gravitate to the slot machines, but Majic and his cohorts hold a
special place here, and in Canada's gambling scene, still considered by
many as harmless adult entertainment.
While parents and educators fuss about cigarettes, booze and drugs,
it turns out more teens engage in gambling than in the other potentially
addictive behaviours. According to the International Centre for Youth Gambling at McGill
University, more than half of Canadian youngsters aged 12 to 17 are
considered recreational gamblers, 10 to 15 per cent are at risk for
developing a severe problem and four to six per cent are considered
Young adults aged 18 to 24 are two to four times more likely to
develop a problem with gambling than the general adult population. These days, it seems the allure of gambling reaches kids early on in
life. A child could receive lottery or scratch tickets in their stocking
at Christmas or wager five bucks on a silly playground stunt at recess.
A bunch of young guys might go online to bet on the week's football or
hockey games, or even head to the local casino for a buddy's
“We're beginning to think that gambling is becoming
something of a rite-of-passage activity for youth,” says John Macdonald,
youth specialist at the Problem Gambling Service at the Centre for
Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.
“This is the first generation that will grow up their entire lives
when gambling is not only legal, but it's endorsed, supported and even
owned by the state,” adds Jeffrey Derevensky, co-director of the
International Centre for Youth Gambling at McGill University and leading
“We teach two things: study hard, work hard, and
you'll be successful. But for a dollar, you could have cash for life and
not have to work.”
That second message is a powerful pull for young people like Majic.
The middle-class kid works all summer in construction, then spends the
academic year wagering some of his summer earnings at the Hull casino.
“I could work for 10 hours at $7 an hour for 70 bucks, or I could
come here and I could make that in a matter of minutes,” says Majic, a
third-year student at Carleton University.
Robert Williams, professor of health sciences at the University of
Lethbridge and a research co-ordinator with the Alberta Gaming Research
Institute, works to dash these expectations. He recently completed a
study to test whether knowledge of the dismal gambling probabilities
results in a drop in gambling among first-year university students. “The idea was if the students really knew what the odds were, it
would change their behaviour,” Williams said of the study involving
students enrolled in an introductory statistics class that extensively
probed gambling probabilities.
“It didn't. It didn't change the behaviour at all,
even though students learned everything they needed to know — the odds
are stacked against them in every game that exists, and they can't win
in the long run. It was a very unexpected and counterintuitive finding.”
Just ask Majic. He once lost $1,000 at the blackjack table in just
one day, but last week, he won $7,000. Majic knows he's still down
overall, but such an acknowledgment isn't enough to keep him away from
the casino. “Am I up overall? No, nobody is,” the business student
No wonder anti-gambling advocates are trying to figure out the best
teaching tool to prevent kids from catching the betting bug. The
Adolescent Problem Gambling Index project, a joint research initiative
launched this fall by several provinces, will propose a validated survey
instrument for assessing gambling behaviour and identifying problem
gambling among teens.
Meanwhile, the Alberta Gaming Research Institute is testing the
effectiveness of a teen gambling prevention program at some Alberta high
schools. Results of the field study are expected in January.
Majic could be the perfect poster child. The young man says he never
wagers any money he doesn't have, but admits he keeps coming back. “A
lot of times, I wish the casino never moved in,” he says of the
establishment located a few kilometres away from where he attends
university. He finishes his smoke break and returns to the blackjack table. It
could be an early day: He has already withdrawn his maximum daily amount
from the on-site bank machine — $800 — and he only has four chips
left, each worth $25.
But, then again ...
By Sarah Schmidt
15 October 2003