Digging for gold

"British Columbia has taken state-sponsored gambling promotion to a new level...And that's a low-level, not a high one" - this, according to America's leading anti-gambling group. The National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, which issued the statement following a Public Eye inquiry, was responding to news that the British Columbia Lottery Corp. is now administering a frequent player program for casino-goers.

The program - which is similar to one pioneered by Harrah's Entertainment Inc. in Atlantic City back in 1983 - encourages gamblers to sign-up for a so-called "gold player card" that can be inserted into slot machines across the province. And, for every dollar that's spent at a machine, the player earns points worth half-a-cent each that can be redeemed for cash. The Web page advertising the program also notes program members are eligible for special benefits - such as hotel room and meal discounts. And members are sent promotional material about casino-related activities.

In an interview with, lottery corporation communications officer Tamara Ibbott defended program - which would be known south of the border as a slot club - noting that government-operated company has a responsibility to "market and promote the products and services that we offer. So the loyalty card program is a standard program that most business or some businesses offer. And we also feel that British Columbia make up their own minds about participating in gaming and participating in the BC gold card program."

But coalition chair Dr. Guy Clark says, "I really can't think of anything more irresponsible or cynical for a government to be doing than British Columbia's 'loyalty marketing' program for its casino...For anyone to use a loyalty marketing program to boost sales of an addictive product is diabolical. We expect that kind of behavior from Harrah's, but for government to do that is inexcusable. The province may just as well raise its alcohol tax revenues by sending free drink coupons to Alcoholics Anonymous chapters" - referring to the promotional material distributed via the gold card program.

And, according to Carl Bechtold, a communications specilaist who works with the coalition, sending those materials is "exactly what you would not want to do to someone who has a gambling problem. Essentially, for them, it's an addiction stimulus device."

Ms. Ibbott, however, counters that the lottery corporation - in conjunction with the provincial government - runs a voluntary exclusion program that can "assist individuals who voluntarily wish to be excluded from casinos or bingo halls for a specified period of time." And those participating in that program aren't allowed to be gold card members. Nor would they be sent gold card promotional material.

The British Columbia-based slot club was piloted in April 2003 at the Casino of the Rockies. But the current points-for-cash program has only been in place province-wide since in January 2006.

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