CTV News has learned a government-funded responsible gaming conference ended up almost 50 per cent over budget last year, as critics question whether the annual event makes a difference to gambling addicts in B.C.

As delegates arrive for this year’s New Horizons in Responsible Gaming Conference in Vancouver this week, Freedom of Information documents show last year’s conference cost almost $100,000 more than planned.

Costs include big ticket items such as $91,000 spent on audio-visual work, $115,000 spent on the conference venue, $430 spent on a flavoured popcorn bar and $1,600 on fruit skewers.

“I think it’s a complete waste of money, a big schmoozefest,” said Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who added the partial guest list disclosed through FOI included mostly industry players and experts studying gambling addiction, but didn’t include support workers dealing with addicted gamblers in B.C.

“You don’t see groups dealing with people who have lost everything because of gambling. This is really about a big organization feeling good about paying lip service to responsibility,” he said.

Documents show the cost of the 2014 conference was $247,000, with the B.C. Lottery Corporation paying $57,000 and sponsors making up the difference.

In 2015, officials estimated the cost would be $209,000, but that rose to $303,000. Sponsorship revenue dropped, and BCLC ended up paying $138,000.

BCLC spokesperson Angela Koulyras said the money is well spent as part of the corporation’s responsible gaming program, which includes voluntary measures to help gambling addicts stay away from casinos.

“It’s more about industry leaders coming together to share information so we can improve and strengthen our responsible gambling programs,” Koulyras said.

Koulyras said BCLC has adopted initiatives generated at the conference, including an online support forum for people with gambling issues, and an assessment of responsible gambling programming. BCLC channels about $1.25 billion each year from gaming revenues into government coffers, she said.

But NDP gaming critic David Eby says the government could be doing far more to help gambling addicts by following through on responsible gaming commitments.

Eby said BCLC has increased maximum hands in games from $50,000 to $100,000 and raised the online betting limit to $9,999, while putting in place online games despite objections from B.C.’s Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch that the games are too addictive.

The B.C. Coroners Service counted 10 gambling related suicides in 2010, the last year with available numbers. And gambling addicts who have asked to be kept out of casinos through the Voluntary Self Exclusion Program are found inside casinos and ejected thousands of times a year. The province has rejected calls to check IDs at the casinos to deter problem gamblers and money launderers.

“The difficulty of this event is that it can be a token nod towards responsible gaming when BCLC’s practices are very different,” Eby said. He said he believes BCLC isn’t taking full measures because it could cut into its bottom line, as problem gamblers are its best customers.

A telephone survey by the Ministry of Finance, which is the ministry responsible for BCLC, says that problem gambling prevalence is down, from about 4.6 per cent of the population in 2008 to 3.3 per cent in 2014.

But Jim O’Rourke, who runs Vision Quest Recovery Centre, says that’s not what he’s seeing on the ground.

“More and more we’re seeing people addicted to gambling,” O’Rourke said.

Three years ago, he had no clients with problem gaming issues. But last year he had 12, including three convicted of stealing a combined $1 million to cover their gambling debts.

“A theft, an embezzlement, a robbery, all just to feed that addiction,” he said. He said $138,000 would allow him to treat a dozen people with gambling addictions.

Bateman said one way to save money would be to hold the conference in a casino, which has conference facilities already. The downside of that would be that conference attendees would see for themselves the programs that BCLC has put into place, he said.