Evidence is clear - locking charcoal in shop cabinets helps cut suicide rates

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2012, 12:00am


An online news story in Taiwan described how the authorities there are taking some recent research on suicide prevention in Hong Kong to heart.

There have been 33 times as many suicides as a result of charcoal burning in Taiwan than there were in 1998. The Taiwan government has decided to act to reduce fatalities and has been persuaded to act by research published by Professor Paul Yip and his colleagues in Hong Kong. This research showed that overall suicide rates in an area of Tuen Mun were reduced by more than half when charcoal was locked in cabinets in supermarkets. Buyers had to simply ask the cashier for a bag, but they could not just pick one up themselves.

Suicide is a permanent solution to what may be a temporary problem: restricting the means of suicide can make a big difference. The simple act of requiring buyers to ask for the charcoal has been shown to substantially reduce suicide rates. Suicide is at least partially dependent on access to means. Suicide is sometimes impulsive, so if the lethal method is not immediately available the suicide can be prevented.

Hong Kong, however, has failed to act on the evidence of its own researchers. There is plenty of other evidence from around the world to support this view about the importance of restricting access to means. The Golden Gate Bridge in the US averages three suicides a week. The authorities have agreed to spend US$40 million for safety netting to reduce this. They don't seem to doubt that it will reduce the overall suicide rate and many will not go off and kill themselves by different means.

One of the strongest pieces of supporting evidence is the detoxification of gas in Britain in the 1960s. This resulted in a 40 per cent reduction in overall suicides in the immediate years after the change. Similar falls in overall rates have been evidenced in suicide using drugs: reducing the toxicity of paracetamol and putting it in blister packs instead of bottles has also seen reductions in deaths by this method. And there is much more evidence.

I find it unfortunate that the Labour and Welfare Bureau and the two main supermarket chains, ParknShop and Wellcome, appear to be dismissing the evidence from studies around the world and the evidence supplied by Professor Yip's work in Hong Kong. There is clear compelling evidence. Lives can be saved by locking up charcoal at all the stores' branches.

Taiwan is acting, why is Hong Kong hesitating?

Alastair Sharp, deputy director, Samaritans Multilingual Suicide Prevention Service, Hong Kong