Now that British Columbia is cashing in on Internet gambling, experts say it's a sure bet that Ontario will follow suit.

B.C.'s recent foray into online betting could be the excuse Canada's most populous province needs to expand its gambling operations to help slay a $20-billion deficit.

Loto-Quebec's online poker site will launch this fall and the Atlantic Lottery Corp. is also expected to follow B.C.'s lead. So it's not so much a question of if Ontario will jump in with online gambling, but when, said Jeff Derevensky of McGill University.

"If I was a wagering person -- which I don't do -- I would certainly bet that they would, in fact, go into Internet gambling," said Derevensky, a director of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High Risk Behaviours.

"This is not a new phenomenon. What you're seeing around the world as the economic situation has deteriorated, more and more governments are actually going for gambling expansion."

Ontario is no exception. Facing years of red ink, the Liberal government needs new revenue streams to rebalance the books and fund expensive promises ahead of the 2011 election. It requires $5 billion a year alone to fully implement an ambitious new plan to provide all-day kindergarten for four-year-olds.

And there aren't many options left. Finance Minister Dwight Duncan recently scrapped potentially lucrative plans to merge four of Ontario's biggest Crown corporations into a so-called SuperCorp and sell off a stake to private investors, and is now headed for a showdown with public-sector unions over planned wage freezes.

Online gambling costs little to set up, said Derevensky. Rather than spending millions on building a new casino with 20,000 employees, all you need is an office and 50 to 60 people.

But socially, the costs can be devastating, particularly among youth, he said.

"You have totally accessibility, these kids are computer-savvy, and it doesn't take all that much to go online," Derevensky said.

"Then you couple that with the fact that these kids feel invulnerable and invincible, and they've grown up on video game technology -- which is exactly what's used in these online gambling casinos -- then you actually have what we would think of as a 'perfect storm' of potential problems."

Paul Godfrey, chairman of scandal-plagued Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., mused about jumping into Internet gambling to boost revenues when he assumed his post in February, and Premier Dalton McGuinty hasn't ruled it out.

"I think what the premier said is that Internet gaming is a reality that the Ontario government can't ignore for long, but the issue is whether or not we should be involved in it, and that's something the government is exploring," Darcy McNeill, spokesman for Duncan, wrote in an email.

Duncan, who is on vacation, could not be reached for comment.

OLG declined repeated requests for an interview. Spokesman Rui Brum said the corporation has conducted research that constitutes "advice to government," but provided no further details.

"In a general sense, like all lottery and gaming jurisdictions in Canada, we (are) closely watching what is happening in B.C., and elsewhere in Canada for that matter," he wrote in an email.

But critics are warning the province to stay away from the business, in spite of the hundreds of millions of dollars it could generate to replenish barren government coffers.

"They don't seem able to restrain their spending, so I would expect that they would look at this if they think there's revenue in it for the province," said Progressive Conservative finance critic Norm Miller.

"My personal feeling is we have enough gambling in the province already and there's a lot of negative things that go along with gambling."

Those negatives can outweigh the positives, Miller added.

"Government just tends to see the revenue that they're going to get from it, but there are a lot of negatives that go along with it that need to be weighed."

Online gambling isn't the answer to Ontario's revenue problem, said NDP critic Peter Tabuns. But if it happens, the Liberals must earmark some of the profits towards programs that will protect those who may be vulnerable to gambling addictions.

"It's pretty clear that if the other provinces go ahead, that Ontarians will probably take part in their online gambling," he said. "We should make sure that our people are looked after."