The number of online gamers tripled during the first year of the pandemic, reveals a major study of 4,500 Quebecers. The great popularity of online gambling sites, propelled by a major advertising hype, should push the government to ban all advertising on games of chance and money, believes researcher Sylvia Kairouz.

The March 2021 study, obtained by La Presse, looked in detail at the gambling habits of 4,500 Quebecers using a large survey. The key finding: online gaming has grown from 5.2% pre-pandemic followers to 15.6% at the time of the study.

“And these are very conservative estimates, since we gave a greater weight to the survey that was done by telephone, composed of people less likely to use the internet, than to the one that was carried out with a web panel,” notes Sylvia Kairouz, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, who conducted this work in collaboration with ten other researchers.

This 15.6% figure breaks down into three distinct groups. The largest, which has 10.5% of respondents, is people who have simply continued their online gambling habits, which they already had before the pandemic. But another proportion, or 5% of respondents, is made up of players who started betting online during the pandemic when they had never played on the web before, or “migratory” players, who bet in bars or casinos, and who found themselves online during the pandemic.

Besides the lottery and the “scratchers”, the favorite game of all these players remains the virtual slot machines. More than a quarter of gamers (27%) choose this game. They play it often: 42% say they play it at least once a week, or even several times a week.

And some gobble up good sums: one in six players (17%) who operate virtual slot machines bet more than $100 per gaming session. A third of players (31%) say they bet more than money online since the pandemic. However, more than half (56%) say they bet the same amounts as before.

For Ms. Kairouz, this move towards online gambling is irreversible.

Especially since the proportion of people who have problems with gambling is much greater with online gambling: “So we are in a more at-risk population, which is increasing. And the availability of online gaming, it’s there all the time. »

Indeed, the study shows that in total, nearly one in five online gamers (18.5%) “present a moderate or high risk of reporting problems related to their gambling habits”. And when you remove lottery gamblers from the analysis, the finding becomes even more damning: nearly a quarter of online gamblers (23.8%) are at risk of developing a gambling problem.

This is the second study that sounds the alarm on the phenomenon of online gambling. The National Institute of Public Health had also carried out a smaller survey, in 2021, which showed that 20% of Quebecers had been tempted by the experience of online gaming. For almost half of them, it was a very first experience.

And advertising plays a key role in attracting online gamers. “It is clear that there is a constant proliferation and diversification of the online gaming offer supported by the deployment of new advertising strategies to reach even more potential players”, concludes the study.

For Ms. Kairouz, the Quebec government must take up the problem without delay.

In addition, she believes, Quebec must create a gaming regulatory body that has power, in order to protect players against fraud and dangerous practices. “If we put in place a certification process, the big online gambling operators would comply with the rules to obtain certification. And the little ones, a good formal notice would make them back down. »

This organization would also have authority over Loto-Québec, “which hides behind the fact that it is a Crown corporation, but which, in fact, has virtually free rein. There is no control. In several countries, France, for example, such an operator must submit to a regulatory body”.

This strategy was already the one proposed by a report on online gambling published more than ten years ago, the conclusions of which have been largely ignored in favor of a strategy aimed at blocking illegal sites.

Quebec has indeed tried to force internet providers to block certain private websites that offer online gambling, but without success. In 2018, the Court invalidated a law adopted to this effect under the Liberal government, ruling that it was unconstitutional. Last February, Minister Eric Girard said he wanted a new version of this law to be adopted.