Hutchison Whampoa

Most supermarkets still refuse to conceal charcoal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am

Supermarkets continue to stack shelves with charcoal despite evidence that keeping it out of sight can help reduce the suicide rate.

The University of Hong Kong's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention is publishing a collection of studies on suicide prevention in the latest edition of The Lancet in the hope of bolstering efforts to get stores to restrict sales of the cooking fuel.

The studies, which include research in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Sri Lanka, suggest that making it harder to obtain charcoal, guns, pesticides and certain over-the-counter drugs can deter would-be suicide victims.

'The common perception is that suicidal people will turn to whatever means necessary, but that's not quite true,' centre director Dr Paul Yip Siu-fai said.

'The most effective way to reduce suicide rates is to restrict access to the most lethal ways. We have evidence to show they will not be replaced by another method.'

The centre hopes the data will put pressure on supermarkets to require customers to have to ask for charcoal, even after they took part in a year-long study that found such a policy may have helped cut the suicide rate in one area by more than half.

In 2006, Wellcome, ParknShop and other stores agreed to only sell charcoal by request in their Tuen Mun stores. The area saw the number of suicides fall to 12 from 26 the previous year. In nearby Yuen Long, where charcoal sales continued as normal, the figure rose from 23 to 25.

Citywide, 137 of the 962 suicides in 2010 - or 14 per cent - were attributed to burning charcoal, compared with 321 out of 1,255 suicides - or 26 per cent - in 2003.

An estimated 14 out of every 100,000 Hong Kong residents committed suicide last year, below the World Health Organisation's global estimate of 16 out of 100,000. The city's suicide rate was 19 out of 100,000 in 2003.

Yip attributes the 27 per cent drop in suicides to reduced access to means of carrying it out and vigilance in communities where suicide is more prevalent.

A Wellcome spokesman said the chain took suicide seriously and that bags of charcoal it sold included the suicide prevention hotline number. 'We will continue to monitor this issue, paying particular attention to the opinions and feedback of experts as well as the community,' he said.

Yip said supermarkets had a responsibility to help prevent suicide attempts by their customers. 'They've got to pay some price in terms of space and the time of employees to participate in this,' he said.