Hospital-sponsored lotteries seem like a win-win, but are they? One expert says “no.”

Many Canadian hospitals run lotteries that are used as fundraisers. Prizes ranging from large cash rewards to real estate and cars are given out to lucky winners, while the proceeds are used to support the medical operations at the hospitals.

For many, this seems like a win-win proposition. But at least one big name in the Canadian medical industry believes that these lotteries could be a lot more dangerous than people assume.

Medical Journal Editor Speaks Out

In the most recent issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, editor-in-chief Dr. John Fletcher wrote an editorial saying that hospitals choosing to run these lotteries should take care to ensure they are protecting players who are at risk for problem gambling if they want to live up to their social responsibilities.

“It is contradictory for legislation to ban hospitals from selling one potentially harmful, but legal, addictive product on their premises – tobacco – while allowing them to actively promote another – lotteries,” wrote Dr. Fletcher. “Have we lost our moral compass to such an extent that we are blinded to our duty to ‘first do no harm’ by the attraction of easy revenue?”

Fletcher did make it clear that he wasn’t advocating for a ban on hospital lotteries. After all, he said, most individuals can take part in such drawings and just have a little fun. At the same time, they raise much needed funds for good causes. But hospitals should also take care to ensure they aren’t taking advantage of those who are prone to compulsive gambling.

According to Fletcher, only about 4 percent of Canadian adults are believed to have gambling problems of varying levels of severity. Not surprisingly, this small group accounts for much more than their fair share of gambling revenues, generating about 23 percent of the nation’s total.

In many cases, somewhat innocuous policies may actually encourage gambling problems. For instance, Dr. Fletcher points out that in most hospital lotteries, there are incentives designed to get players to purchase more tickets. If one ticket costs $10, ten may only cost $50 – thus encouraging people to spend more to increase their chances of winning.

These sorts of incentives could lead to huge outlays of cash in order to get the best odds of winning possible. And as Fletcher himself pointed out, problem gamblers can sometimes have extreme difficulties in stopping at a responsible place, instead accruing debt or even losing jobs, homes or family relationships because of their gambling.

And Now for Another Opinion

But not everyone agrees with Dr. Fletcher’s take on the situation. Dr. Robert Bell, the president and CEO of University Health Network, told The Globe and Mail that he was disappointed by Fletcher’s editorial.

Bell cited a 2011 study from Sweden that found that lotteries were among the least addictive forms of gambling, making them far less dangerous for society as a whole. That, combined with the good that the lotteries do, made him feel comfortable with the hospital contests.

“The hospital lotteries do a tremendous amount of good in providing funding for enhancing patient care and certainly funding crucial research – funding that is difficult to raise in other ways,” Bell said.

There are numerous hospital lotteries throughout Canada. Some of the largest annual lotteries have been able to raise as much as $10 million or more for major hospitals.