What’s the difference between opioid and gambling addictions?

The difference is that, in the case of opioids, the harm creators are the drug’s makers and distributors. In the case of VLT gambling, they’re governments themselves. And that creates a world of difference when it comes to which harm-maker governments decide should be punished and which should be protected.

Give Stephen McNeil’s Liberals an A+ for Audacity. On Tuesday last week (March 3), the government introduced legislation to give it, present and previous cabinet ministers, the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation, the Atlantic Lottery Corporation and provincial casino operators blanket immunity from class-action lawsuits, as well as a free pass on liability for any punitive damages, not only now and into the future but also back almost 20 years, all the way to May 2, 1991. That’s the day — no coincidence — VLTs became legal in Nova Scotia.

The very next day, on Wednesday, the government tabled another bill — the Opioid Damages and Health Care Costs Recovery Act — to give itself licence to sue opioid makers and peddlers to recover past, present and future costs to our healthcare system caused by the opioid crisis.

To be fair — we’re always fair — the two pieces of legislation didn’t magically appear out of the ether. They are both cover-your-butt responses to court challenges already launched by others elsewhere.

The British Columbia government has filed a class action lawsuit against opioid manufacturers. Our legislation, which follows similar bills in Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and Ontario, would give us the power us to pile on and, we hope, share in any financial benefit that comes out of a settlement.

The amendments to the Gaming Control Act are a very direct and calculated answer to a class action lawsuit the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal certified in December 2018. That case, on behalf 30,000 Newfoundland VLT gamblers, alleges the machines are inherently deceptive, addictive and illegal under the Criminal Code.

You won’t be surprised to learn law firms that specialize in contingency cases have been lurking in the weeds ever since. Consider this from a December 2018 blog post by Nova Scotia-based Wagners: A Serious Injury Law Firm:

“The class action team at Wagners has been monitoring the proceedings in Newfoundland and Labrador since their commencement with a view to commencing a similar class action in Nova Scotia.”

Hence, the need for a new law to prophylactically kneecap any potential legal threat from gambling addicts to the government, which is responsible for licencing gaming operators.

But here’s the thing.

Those British Columbia and Newfoundland class action suits — which our new laws were created to respond to — are, in fact, very similar in purpose.

They each seek to hold those who’ve inflicted harm by encouraging addiction accountable for their actions.

The difference is that, in the case of opioids, the harm creators are the drug’s makers and distributors. In the case of VLT gambling, the harm makers are governments themselves.

But that, it turns out, creates a world of difference when it comes to who should be punished and who should be protected.

Harm makers? Consider Health Minister Randy Delorey’s description of  the impact of the opioid crisis:

“Opioid overdose needlessly takes lives, places stress on communities and can overwhelm our emergency first responders and emergency departments. It also puts a financial strain on our province in delivering those important health services.”

Make the bastards who made this addiction mess pay.

But you could say much the same about gambling addiction.

Finance Minister Karen Casey — no surprise — doesn’t see it that way. Gambling, she told reporters last week, is an “individual’s choice,” so her new law preventing gamblers from suing the government is simply a “wise and prudent step.”

Perhaps her view has been clouded by visions of government gambling revenues —$145.2 million last year, with more than half of that spilling out of VLT machines — dancing across her budget books. The government’s 2020-21 budget projects gambling revenue will increase by close to another $2 million this coming year.

It is not that Casey is completely insensitive. “We also recognize that we have a responsibility to help those who may be struggling.”

Let’s unpack that, shall we?

Based on the Canadian Problem Gambling Index, about 47,000 adults in this province are at various levels of risk for problem gambling, of whom about 7,000 are severe problem gamblers.

In 2012, the previous NDP government belatedly introduced a mandatory program called My Play. It used a card system to help gamblers set VLT spending and time limits, and gave them information about their gaming history. The McNeil government shuttered it with unseemly haste after they took office in 2014. Declared Andrew Younger, the then minister in charge of the Gaming Control Act:

“In addition to providing responsible gambling programs and being mindful of people with gambling addictions, we must also be mindful of public dollars. We have reached the conclusion that, given the system does not work as intended, further spending of public dollars on it is not reasonable.”

Did the system really not work? According to information provided to the NDP in January 2020 in response to an access to information request:

“The Liberals canceled a VLT addiction program, My Play, in 2014 due, in part, to a ‘significant drop in revenue.’ In emails to Casey, a government staff member admits the My Play system was acting as a disincentive to people using VLTs. Revenues from VLTs increased by $10 million the year following the elimination of My Play.”

Screw those 7,000 problem gamblers and the 47,000 Nova Scotians at risk.

But give us the right to sue the opioid bastards.

Perhaps we should give the Liberals a D- for dissembling.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner March 9, 2020.

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