Manitobans who want to try their luck at poker, blackjack or roulette online can now do so on a provincially regulated site.
Just before noon Wednesday, the Manitoba Lotteries Corp. launched its PlayNow.com site in conjunction with the British Columbia Lottery Corp. (BCLC).
The site includes a wide range of games, including live and video poker and slots, as well as live sports betting.
Lotteries executives and the Selinger government billed the new diversion as a safe and reputable online gambling option, while the Opposition Conservatives expressed concern about the social costs of the government's increased reliance on gambling revenues.
Manitobans wishing to gamble will be required to register and have a credit card handy. PlayNow.com was created by the BCLC in 2004. Manitoba is piggybacking on its platform.
The site offers features to protect gamblers against themselves. For instance, they can voluntarily set spending limits on a particular game. When those limits are reached, gamers are cut off. There is also a weekly deposit limit of $9,999 -- essentially the maximum someone can lose in that period.
Proponents say a regulated environment ensures games are fair and winners get paid. They note Manitobans already spend a considerable amount of money on online gambling -- an estimated $37 million in 2011 alone.
"We know that Manitobans are already playing online on grey market (unregulated) sites. What we're hoping to do is have those people play our site because of the fact that we are regulated and legal," said Susan Olynik, vice-president of corporate communications and social responsibility with Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries.
Manitoba is expected to reap $1.5 million in revenue from PlayNow.com in the first operating year. That's expected to grow to $17 million a year by 2018.
Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said he's troubled by government's increased reliance on gambling and would like to see a public dialogue on the issue.
Pallister is not impressed with the argument that Manitobans are already gambling online, so the government might as well regulate it and profit from it. "The question is not just how much money does the government get from gambling revenues, surely. The question is how much does it cost society in general," he said.
Marion Cooper, of the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, said she's pleased the website promotes responsible gambling. But she noted that for the one to three per cent of Manitobans with a gambling problem, there's now one more place to turn. "That segment of our population is the segment that we're concerned about when there's an increased access," she said.
Steve Ashton, Manitoba minister responsible for lotteries, said the BCLC has developed a "very strong security-based system" to prevent underage gambling.
Ashton also said it made sense for Manitoba to partner with an established provincial player rather than develop its own site. "It's also a good business arrangement for Manitoba. We're not paying for upfront capital costs," he said.
Manitoba Lotteries invests two per cent of its net income in problem gambling prevention. An additional three per cent of the net income from PlayNow.com will go to the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba.
Website promotes responsibility
Manitoba Lotteries says PlayNow.com has several features to help gamblers play responsibly, including:
Mandatory player registration;
A process to prevent access by underage players;
Real-time display of time and cash spent;
Ability to pre-set spending limits on a particular game;
A weekly deposit limit of $9,999
Information and tips on responsible play;
Information and links to problem gambling support;
Play history reports to monitor spending;
A voluntary self-exclusion program.