Gambling ‚like drug,‘ court hears at start of suit against Loto-Quebec

Quebec – After years of legal wrangling, the hearing of a potentially crippling class-action lawsuit against Loto-Quebec opened in Quebec City Monday with the testimony of a former journalist who squandered more than CAD 360,000 in video lottery terminals (VLTs).

„Gambling was like a drug to me, it was all I could think of. It consumed me,“ explained Nelson Labrie, 69, who worked for the newspaper Le Soleil for over 25 years.

Labrie started playing on VLTs in 1996 to relieve his boredom after he retired and lost his wife to cancer. At first, he found it entertaining and relaxing, but in a few months Labrie said he became addicted.

„I was ready to do everything to go gambling,“ he said during his more than four-hour long testimony. „I lied to my friends and my son and squandered all my belongings, including my wife’s antiques.“

In two years, Labrie spent more than CAD 360,000 on his gambling habit, losing his house, his savings and his retirement funds. He ended up with a CAD 47,000 debt and eventually went bankrupt.

Labrie is part of a group of pathological gamblers who filed a class-action lawsuit against Loto-Quebec seeking compensation for addicts, estimated to number 119,000 in the province by the plaintiffs.

A lawyer and recovering gambler, Jean Brochu, filed the legal action in 2001, claiming VLTs are tied to pathological gambling. He also blames the government agency for playing down the dangers of VLTs.

The lawyer for Loto-Quebec said in his opening statement that no scientific study has proven that VLTs can cause addiction and added that the government is doing a lot to help problem gamblers deal with their addictions.

„The causes behind pathological gambling can vary from one person to another, but most of the time it originates in personal problems,“ said Yvan Bolduc. „Studies have shown that many pathological gamblers also have other addictions, like alcohol or drugs.“

„We claim that VLTs are as dangerous to people’s health as cigarette and we want Loto-Quebec to warn people properly,“ said Jean-Paul Michaud, who represents the gambling addicts.

The plaintiffs want their addiction treatments and other fees reimbursed, for an average amount of CAD 5,000. If they win their case, Loto-Quebec could end up with a bill of more than CAD 700 million, including exemplary damages.

„I am here today to explain my descent into hell and show gambling addicts are not the only ones responsible for their addiction,“ Labrie told Superior Court Judge Gratien Duchesne.

He said he was confined in a mental institution twice during his two-year gambling spree because he was depressed and wanted to commit suicide. He later underwent therapy and quit gambling when he started to work voluntarily at a facility for compulsive gamblers.

Anti-VLT activist Phyllis Vineberg – whose son Trevor committed suicide in 1995 after he had spent CAD 100,000 on VLTs – will follow the trial very closely.

„We often talk about second-hand smoke, now it’s time we start talking about second-hand gambling. Too many families have been torn apart by this,“ Vineberg said.

„Gambling is not a game, it never was and it will never be a game,“ she added, waiting outside the courtroom where she is set to testify later this fall.

The high-profile case is expected to last six to 12 months and both sides intend to bring forward dozens of witnesses. Some 12 other gambling addicts like Labrie are going to testify.