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On January 10, 1980, I was sent to jail for embezzling a large amount of money. A compulsive gambler, my habit had cost me everything: my family, my finances, and my freedom. When I got out, I knew I needed help staying away from gambling.
When I looked around, I had a hard time finding the services I needed, and I knew I could not the only one. Three years after finding help in the US from Dr. Robert L. Custer and learning everything I could, I formed the Canadian Foundation on Compulsive Gambling. I had an office in my basement and a few dollars in the bank.
Unlike Tibor, I had no gambling background. I had a strong background in prevention policy and operations in the drug and alcohol field and the disability sector. I really liked the challenge of figuring out ways to reduce problem gambling. I had to learn what Tibor knew firsthand, that problem gambling has real and frequently devastating consequences for people. It’s important work.
I know we can’t reduce any social problem or harm with prevention programs alone. It’s important to provide information and encouragement to people to help them avoid problems. But it is also important to influence the supply side, in this case, the way gambling is provided.
I’m proud of what RGC has become, and knowing that I started it. When I first sent out letters to about a hundred influential Ontarians, I didn’t know what would happen. What did happen is that almost everyone responded positively, and out of that came the CFCG.
But I think most of all, I feel proud knowing I’ve helped people. I turned my own experience into something positive. When I wasn’t trying to secure funding, I was first and foremost a counsellor. I wanted compulsive gamblers to know that somebody understood their struggle. There are people around, today, who I know I helped. I was also able to go into prisons to talk to inmates whose crimes were related to compulsive gambling, and I gave training to medical professionals about compulsive gambling. Nobody else was doing that. Those things had a real impact.
I feel that RGC has been able to make real and concrete contributions to prevention through hands- on programs like the youth programs, social marketing campaigns and on-site resource education hubs, the PlaySmart Centres. We were able to influence public policies and gaming provision through best-practice research and by offering accreditation to gambling sites that achieve high standards in player protections.
Beyond that, or perhaps underlying it, I am proud of how we maintained our balanced perspective. Tibor told me on my first day, “We are here to focus on fixing problem gambling, not to oppose gambling.” RGC has held firm to that fundamental value.
The biggest challenge was funding. I spent the better part of my 15 years running the foundation trying to get enough funding to keep it going. It was a lot of work trying to persuade the industry, and the government, that compulsive gambling was a problem for them. At that time, there was a lot of denial. And, it was hard to make people understand where I was coming from. I was never, and I’m still not, against gambling. But I was going up against people who did not understand the importance of addressing the problems that gambling causes for some people. Sometimes, I was the enemy.
Like Tibor, my first and biggest challenge was money. In the beginning, we were working on a shoestring. Remember, this was well before Ontario’s problem gambling funding formula kicked in in 2002, so finding support was tenuous. I believed that the route to financial support was program development – primarily prevention programs. So, we set out to develop youth programs, public campaigns, and policy ideas. As Tibor mentioned, the other enormous challenge was the lack of acceptance of problem gambling as a real problem that deserved a share of public resources. The CFCG had been highly successful in putting problem gambling on the public agenda – but much more needed to be done. And still does, I think.
My work had a huge impact on my life. There were many stresses, on me and on my family. But, in a way, the work was a self-help program for me. If you think about it, most recovery programs and self-help involve one thing: sharing your story, and listening to others tell theirs. By doing the work I did, I did that every single day. And that helped me ensure that my compulsive gambling was a thing of the past. I am both proud, and grateful, for that.
RGC had many milestones and successes. That leaves me with an odd combination of pride and humility. The pride is in accomplishing what we did. The humility comes from knowing that those accomplishments are rightfully shared with many other people and, frankly, are in part the result of being in the right place at the right time. When governments were finally ready to pay attention, the CFCG /RGC had already been around a long time. And I know with absolute certainty that none of it would have been possible without Tibor’s lionhearted commitment to bringing attention to the real and devastating effect that problem gambling has on people.
Over the last 20 years, RGC has grown and evolved so much. In so many ways, Jon did things I would never have been able to do, in terms of building programs, developing awareness campaigns, as well as in research and accreditation. It’s an enormous achievement, and I am excited to see where RGC goes next.
Governments continue to rely on gambling revenue, so the need for RGC is not going away. I am still concerned, though, that not everyone who needs help is getting it – especially treatment that addresses the unique characteristics of compulsive gambling. Compulsive gambling is a complicated challenge, and, even though prevention is important, we still need to find better ways to help those who are lost in this self-destructive addiction, including both in-patient and out-patient clinics.
The world of gambling has evolved enormously. In 1998, we were primarily talking about casinos and lottery. Now gambling has a large and growing number of facets, like betting on video games or daily fantasy sports. That means the world of responsible gambling must evolve to encompass a vast array of gambling types, each with its own player segment and terminology. This is a major challenge for RGC and the whole sector. But evolution is nothing new for RGC. I have no doubt that 10 years from now, RGC will still be leading the way with new insights and innovative ways to respond to the new demands.
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