In a bid to keep millions spent on offshore gambling websites in the province, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. says Ontarians will have access to legal online gambling by 2012.
"Across Canada and around the world, online commerce is part of our everyday lives and OLG is excited to start the consultation process for online gaming and growing its marketplace in the future," OLG chairman Paul Godfrey said Tuesday.
Thousands of Ontario residents spend nearly $400 million a year through unregulated Internet gaming providers, mostly outside the province.
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said one reason for launching the program, which could ultimately offer everything from lottery ticket sales to casino-style games and online poker, is to ensure that OLG continues to be a reliable source of revenue.
OLG delivers about $1.7 billion a year to provincial coffers, but that amount has been shrinking.
Duncan's spokesman, Andrew Chornenky, said OLG-run online gambling will bring in an estimated $100 million a year by its fifth year of operation. "With this program, the money would stay in Ontario and go towards schools, hospitals, bridges ... the things we need."
But some experts argue legalized online gambling will mean more addictions.
"When you increase accessibility, you increase the chance of gambling problems," said Carole Cecchini, an addictions counsellor at Tri-Country Addiction Services in Smiths Falls.
"If you put the object of someone's addiction close to them, they will have more difficulty with it. I'm not sure what the government is doing is the best idea."
Cecchini also said she worries about the government's ability to regulate the program once it's set up.
According to Jon Kelly, chief executive of the Responsible Gambling Council, 20 per cent of online gamblers have a moderate to severe addiction problem, a higher rate than in other forms of gambling.
Cecchini's concerns are echoed by Serge Perreault, an addictions therapist at the Addiction Services of Eastern Ontario in Cornwall.
"How are they going to keep minors off these sites? How do you stop a teenager, who is automatically at risk for addiction because of their age, from grabbing their parents' credit cards and using them?
"Do I think it's a good idea? Not really — there are too many unknowns."
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which will regulate the program, is figuring out how to regulate cyber-gambling, said spokeswoman Lisa Murray.
She said the safeguards will likely include "self-block" mechanisms that allow users to prevent themselves from gambling past their limits, along with age verification tools to keep out minors. The sites will also post warnings about gambling addiction, she said.
"Through a province-run program, we're making online gambling safer for the public by being able to regulate it," she said.
Godfrey — who is also CEO of Postmedia Inc., owners of the Citizen — said Tuesday the gaming site would include chat rooms for people who are worried they have a gambling problem and pop-ups that require players to set a maximum amount of money and time per session.