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Her name is long forgotten and how she thought up her macabre suicide remains a mystery. But the lonely death of a middle-aged woman in November 1998 who sealed the doors and windows of her Hong Kong bedroom and then set light to a pan of barbecue charcoal was a solitary tragedy that mutated into an international epidemic.
Fourteen years after what was the first recorded case globally by charcoal burning, the trend has gone global. It has claimed thousands of lives, it is the leading method of suicide in parts of Taiwan, and it has spread to the US and most recently to the UK.
Fuelled by lurid and descriptive newspaper reports of the original case, charcoal burning quickly became the second most common form of suicide in Hong Kong, accounting for 320 deaths in 2003. Although it declined in subsequent years, it is on the rise again and accounts for between 150 and 160 deaths a year, or around a sixth of all Hong Kong suicides.
As well as the city that spawned the ghoulish practice, Hong Kong is also the place that pioneered moves to tackle it — hosting a trial one-year project in which sales of barbecue charcoal were restricted at supermarkets and stores in one district, leading to an impressive 53 percent fall in deaths by charcoal burning.
By taking charcoal off the shelves and keeping it in a store room, making packets available only upon request to customers, the suicide rate using the method in the district, where the project was carried out in 2006-2007, was reduced by the equivalent of 11 people.
The project, summarized in a detailed 2010 academic study, was deemed so successful it has since been adopted and promoted by officials in Taiwan as a long-term method to tackle the trend, which has become so widespread it now accounts for almost one in three suicides in Taipei.
But in Hong Kong, the two main supermarket chains Wellcome and Park n Shop — which took part in the 2006-2007 experiment — have steadfastly refused to continue or extend the trial scheme and have reverted to stocking charcoal on shop shelves, stonewalling repeated appeals from the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention.
Now the center’s Director Paul Yip Siu-fai hopes the supermarkets and the Hong Kong government will have a change of heart as a new study published in prestigious medical journal The Lancet on Friday analyses the Hong Kong experiment for a worldwide audience and argues that such initiatives can save lives.
Written by Yip together with psychiatric, social work and medical experts from the US and Taiwan, the paper demonstrates forensically how restricting access to a popular means of suicide leads to an overall reduction in the death rate.
In a powerful, authoritative argument for community intervention, the paper says: “The probability of individuals attempting suicide decreases when they are precluded from implementing a preferred method.