Gambling and its big money is a win-win for the government -- but for problem gamblers it's lose-lose, with health, homes, families and jobs at risk.
Legalized gambling in Ontario has generated thousands of jobs, increased GDP, and is a cash cow for the provincial government as it accounts for about 2% of its income.
But, it has also caused havoc in the lives of problem gamblers.
In the past two decades, the number of Canadians gambling has steadily increased along with the amount of money they've wagered -- be it with casinos, lotteries, racetracks or online.
Statistics Canada research shows that net revenue from government-run lotteries, video lottery terminals, casinos and slot machines (not in casinos) rose steadily from $2.73 billion in 1992, to $13.67 billion in 2008.
The average gambling revenue per person 18 and over in 2008 ranged from $114 in the three territories to $825 in Saskatchewan, with a national average of $528.20.
Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. stats show the revenue generated from legalized gambling in Ontario alone was $6.4 billion in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, compared to $6.2 billion during 2007-2008.
Linda Bell, who co-founded Bellwood Health Service 25 years ago, says that while 70% of Canadians gamble, about 3.5% of adults in Ontario are problem gamblers.
"Most people don't run into a gambling addiction, but a certain percentage of people will fit into the troubled self-destruct mode and will lose all their financial assets and break up their families very quickly," Bell says.
It's estimated that 300 to 500 suicides a year in Ontario are a result of problem gamblers.
NDP health critic Frances Gelinas says casinos know who the VIPs are and those at risk of becoming addicted, since they also tend to be the big losers who keep going back to casinos.
"There is no link between the casinos and treatment. Casinos offer these people VIP cars, pick them up in black limousines and offer other enticing gifts," she says.
"Casinos know there will be people who have addiction problems and the government should do a better job of preventing and identifying problem gamblers before their lives are ruined."
The OLG spent $558 million in 2008-2009 on marketing and promotion for gaming operations including casinos and slots.
"We do this because we operate in a highly competitive environment for the attention of our customers. We must market through our customers and certainly it attracts new customers as well," OLG spokesman Rui Brum says.
"We do take problem gambling extremely seriously. We're considering looking at ways to tackle this problem. We're looking at research, new technologies and to equip staff with the tools and knowledge to help problem gamblers," Brum says, adding the OLG opened 24 responsible gambling resource centres across Ontario to help problem gamblers.
Ken, 68, (who requested anonymity), a former successful Toronto CEO and father of three, lost everything and has been separated from his wife for five years.
Ken led a secretive double-life. He would leave each morning for work, gamble all day at a casino and return home in time for dinner.
"I never gambled until I was 55. I used gambling to escape from business problems. I initially went to the casino once a month, then it became four times a week and before I knew it, I neglected my work, my family ... and violated the honesty of everything I did in my life," Ken says, adding he took money from his company.
"We never hear about families that are destroyed and break up of marriages and financial losses of problem gamblers," Ken says.
"It's a mental illness. I believed I was gambling for other people, to make their lives better than for myself and my own needs," Ken recalls.
He says gamblers are enticed by the manipulation of the casino environment once you step foot inside.
"Research shows the casino's music, the pumping in of extra oxygen contributes to keeping people in their seats longer. Casino employees take whole courses on public relations to make the patron feel more welcome and when someone wins $100 you'll hear 'black chip out' by the dealer, but you'll never hear 'black chip in' when you lose $100," Ken says.
"For example, the OLG has subtle messages, 'if you don't play, you can't win,' and people buy into that dream world. Casinos target every group out there, including seniors, by providing free transportation from seniors' homes, to giving vouchers for free buffets, hotel stays and shows," Ken says.