AN increasing number of people are killing themselves by burning charcoal. The method - in which people seal their windows and burn charcoal to kill themselves by carbon monoxide poisoning - is now the second most common method of suicide in Hong Kong after jumping from buildings. Burning charcoal has become more popular as the slow death it induces has often been bizarrely described as a 'romantic process' for couples and close friends. A study by psychiatrists at the Prince of Wales Hospital has found that the average age of people who take their own lives by burning charcoal is 39 - younger than those who jump (47) or hang themselves (55). The number of charcoal suicides shot up after the first reported incident on the front page of a Chinese-language newspaper in November 1998. Two other suicides using the same method were reported that month, followed by 10 cases in December and nine in January last year. The number dropped to one in February - apparently due to Lunar New Year, as major events help divert the attention of suicidal people. But there has been a steady number of cases since then, especially during the colder months. Fifty-seven people died from inhaling charcoal fumes from November 1998 until the end of last year. They included lovers who died in suicide pacts and a debt-ridden family of five - a couple and their three sons aged eight to 12 - who were found in their flat in Tin Shui Wai on June 9 last year. Most of the deaths were reported to be linked to financial problems, backing up the findings of Samaritan Befrienders, a suicide-prevention group. Consultant psychiatrist Dr Leung Chi-ming said charcoal burning contributed to the significant increase in suicide pacts, which were unheard of in 1996. 'Compared to other methods of suicide, burning charcoal is more appealing to people who want to commit suicide together,' Dr Leung said. 'Some reports romanticise and glamorise the process, during which victims talk, eat and gradually die together.' He said this method of suicide was rare elsewhere, even on the mainland where charcoal was common. 'It might be due to the traditional ritual of Hong Kong people burning paper items at funerals. The container some victims use is the one people use for ancestral worshipping. Some of them burned paper money for themselves before committing suicide,' Dr Leung said. Dr Chung Wai-sau, senior medical officer at the hospital, said shame and fear led suicidal people to use charcoal rather than gas. 'They did not want to cause an explosion. By burning charcoal, they will not alert other people. They know it is not a good thing to do,' he said. Dr Chung blamed media attention for the rise in charcoal suicides. '[But] it is too difficult to judge if the media has any impact on making people jump from buildings or hang themselves, because these forms of suicide have existed for too long,' Dr Chung said. About 870 Hong Kong people killed themselves in 1998. By comparison, 262 people died in road accidents between November 1998 and December 1999. The Coroner's Report, which does not have a special category for suicide caused by charcoal burning, has yet to publish the suicide figures for last year. It is believed suicide rates increased by about 25 per cent in Japan after Asia went into an economic tail-spin in 1997.