Original Paper

Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology

, Volume 46, Issue 9, pp 797-803

First online:

The contribution of charcoal burning to the rise and decline of suicides in Hong Kong from 1997–2007

  • C. K. LawAffiliated withHong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong Email author 
  • , Paul S. F. YipAffiliated withHKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, The University of Hong KongDepartment of Social Work and Social Administration, The University of Hong Kong
  • , Eric D. CaineAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry and Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide, University of Rochester

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There has been scant research exploring the relationship between choice of method (means) of self-inflicted death, and broader social or contextual factors. The recent emergence and growth of suicide using carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from burning charcoal in an enclosed space (hereafter, “charcoal burning”) was related to an increase in the overall suicide rate in Hong Kong. The growth of this method coincided with changing economic conditions. This paper expands upon previous work to explore possible relationships further.


This study aims to discern the role of charcoal burning in overall suicide rate transition during times of both economic recession and expansion, as captured in the unemployment rate of Hong Kong, and to examine whether there was evidence of an effect from means-substitution.


Age and gender specific suicide rates in Hong Kong by suicide methods from 1997 to 2007 were calculated. To model the transition of suicide rate by different methods, Poisson regression analyses were employed.


Charcoal burning constituted 18.3% of all suicides, 88% of which involved individuals drawn from the middle years (25–59) of life. During both periods of rising and declining unemployment, charcoal burning played an important role in the changing suicide rates, and this effect was most prominent among for those in their middle years. Means-substitution was found among the married women during the period of rate advancement (1997–2003).


Compared to others, working-age adults preferentially selected carbon monoxide poisoning from charcoal burning.


Charcoal burning Carbon monoxide poisoning Suicide Suicide prevention Restriction to means Method substitution