Manitoba is hooked on VLTs like no other province, but is now at risk of maxing out.

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This article was published 14/9/2016 (1829 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba is hooked on VLTs like no other province, but is now at risk of maxing out.

An independent report commissioned by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the province said the VLT industry has stagnated and cautioned against further investments in a jurisdiction that has one of the "most penetrated gaming markets in North America."

According to the report, Manitoba has the most VLTs per capita in Canada, trailing only Quebec in total number of gaming machines, and more money is spent per adults at VLTs here than anywhere else nationally.

Manitobans put more than $1.5 billion into VLTs annually and walk home with about $1.2 billion in winnings.

The report’s goal was to assess the potential market for additional First Nations gaming facilities in the province.

In the last 10 years, Manitoba was the only province to increase its number of VLT machines, the bulk of which were placed on Manitoba First Nations — 619 compared to 81 at non-First Nation sites. Additional gaming investments included the expansion of South Beach Casino and Resort, the addition of the Sand Hills Casino in western Manitoba and the Shark’s Club in downtown Winnipeg.

The province is also conducting a broader review of the implications of expanded gaming in Manitoba. That review was started under the previous Selinger government.

"The 2016 Manitoba Gaming Market Study indicates that the gaming market is oversupplied throughout the province, including in Winnipeg. Any change in capacity must therefore be supported by a solid market analysis and business plan," provincial spokeswoman Amy McGuinness said in a prepared statement.

A request for comment from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, who struck a partnership in 2005 with the province to develop five First Nation-owned casinos across Manitoba, was not returned.

To date, three of the five promised First Nations casinos are up and running: South Beach in Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, about 60 kilometres north of Winnipeg; Sand Hills near Carberry; and Aseneskak Casino in The Pas. The operators of Aseneskak recently said they want to relocate in the next two years. The casino can operate up to 600 gaming machines, but only has traffic for 172. There are six gaming tables, while the casino has a licence for 40.

Dan Sanscartier, the vice-president of gaming operations for Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, said First Nations must present a business case to show they can generate enough profit to pay back the Crown corporation for the installation of the VLTs.

"These sites provide much-needed employment for these areas; they ask for them, and if there is a business case, who are we to say you can’t have them?" Sanscartier said.

However, he admits most future expansion in the gaming market is likely going to focus on building up entertainment at casino venues rather than attempting to expand a market that’s "flat-lined."

According to Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries’ 2014-15 annual report, VLTs generated $323.5 million in revenue, an increase of $14.2 million or 4.6 per cent from the previous year. It contributed to almost 30 per cent of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries’ net income.

The Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba licenses all VLT siteholders in the province. However, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries makes the final business decision about where to install its machines.

The continued proliferation of VLTs troubles Tracie Afifi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Manitoba.

"It is one of the types of the gambling that is associated with having the greatest risks for having gambling-related problems," said Afifi, adding VLTs located outside of casinos pose the greatest danger because they are so accessible.

"They can be in bars, restaurants and lounges in Manitoba, spread out through the community. You don’t have to go that far to find a VLT in Manitoba," Afifi said.

In 2013, the former Selinger government allowed up to 500 new VLTs across the province, by allowing Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries to increase the number of VLTs facilities were permitted to operate to 40 from 35.

A 2006 report by the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba shows problem gamblers were more likely to report playing VLTs (78.8 per cent) in the past year compared to any other group.

Susan Olynik, vice-president of corporate communications and social responsibility for Liquor and Lotteries, said all VLTs are outfitted with social-responsibility features such as timers, money limits, time limits. Two per cent of the profits from Liquor Lotteries is spent on responsible gaming and consumption programs.

"No single measure can prevent problem gambling on its own, but these features can help individuals monitor their play," Olynik said.

In Manitoba, First Nations VLT siteholders retain 90 per cent of net winnings, which makes the operation lucrative. Hotels, bars and lounges collect 22 per cent.

This has been a sticking point for Manitoba Hotel Association president Scott Jocelyn, who sees VLTs as one of the main lifelines keeping rural hotels afloat. He has long lobbied for the provincial government to give hotel owners a bigger slice of the VLT profit pie.

"The industry needed a shot in the arm in the early ’90s... the VLTs are very, very important to our operators," Jocelyn said.

kristin.annable@freepress.mb.ca