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Russians sober up under health-conscious Vladimir Putin

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Via Financial Times

Smirnoff’s first vodka warehouse in central Moscow is becoming an arts and culture complex. Cheering fans at the Russian capital’s ice hockey derby are fuelled only by non-alcoholic lager. And the ubiquitous pavement kiosks that once sold vodka bottles and dried fish snacks taped to the windows now deal only in newspapers and soft drinks.

Long stereotyped as a nation of heavy drinkers, Russia has defied traditional clichés over the past decade as alcohol consumption has halved between 2008 and 2018, according to government statistics, driven by strict new state policies and a surge in health-conscious middle classes and incomes. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin has made a healthy lifestyle a major part of his public relations image, in stark contrast to predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s infamous penchant for the bottle. The latter’s televised drinking, singing and dancing, and slurred speeches came to symbolise Russia’s inebriated decade after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Our leader is completely compliant with a healthy way of life. He plays sports, he shows as a role model how to work hard but maintain a healthy lifestyle,” said Veronika Skvortsova, the country’s health minister, who has led a pan-government crusade against the bottle.

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A dramatic fall in alcohol consumption has coincided with a rise in life expectancy to an all-time high. “We have been heading towards this, focusing completely on this goal,” she said. “When I arrived in the ministry in 2008, the annual consumption of alcohol was 18 litres per capita . . . My strategy was to make every minister in the entire government feel a little bit like they were the minister of health.” 

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The crackdown on alcohol is a major about-turn from a government that only 13 years ago launched a state-produced, super low-cost vodka marketed to its poorest people. Since 2010, excise tax on alcohol has been raised, sales banned after 11pm and in sports events, adverts barred from television and drinking prohibited in public spaces. 

At nine litres of pure alcohol equivalent per year, the average Russian now drinks less than people in France or Germany, according to World Health Organization (WHO) data. 

Ms Skvortsova said her next push — to reduce the average drinking level below the WHO’s official healthy limit of eight litres of clear alcohol or equivalent per person per year — will involve increasing to 21 the legal age to buy alcohol more than 16.5 per cent, and teaching the benefits of abstinence to children as young as three. “We are honing our strategy in how to combat bad behaviours,” said the doctor of neurology. “We want to make living healthily a habit . . . on a subconscious level.” 

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Alcohol has long been a major health issue in Russia. Before the clampdown, it was the biggest external factor in deaths of working-age people. Of those who died in hospital of pneumonia, 90 per cent had alcohol in their blood. Since 2008, average life expectancy in Russia has increased by five years to 73 last year. “Obviously these are connected. It is one, big contributor to the increase,” said Ms Skvortsova.

While the first Alcoholics Anonymous group in Moscow was founded in 1988, there are 165 groups in the capital alone.

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“In Russia, few people know that [these activities] are happening right around them in their areas, inside social centres, or church buildings nearby: recovering alcoholics are helping other alcoholics embark on the path of sobriety,” said Natalia Matveeva, who heads the Moscow network of support groups.

Reducing drinking is also seen by the government as a means to increase productivity and economic output, and reduce crime. “It is known that a certain proportion of crimes might not have happened if it weren’t for alcohol. According to the Russian ministry of internal affairs, in 2018 every third case involving a breach of the law involves intoxication,” said Ms Matveeva. 

The health crusade, which has also involved a campaign against cigarettes, is expanding to combat recreational drugs and the rise of alternative tobacco products. 

“It is very important that this progress [reducing smoking] does not reverse. The lobbyists which fight against a healthy way of life can find very tricky ways to go from traditional cigarettes to e-smoking,” she said.

“I think they are even more dangerous than natural tobacco. We are planning the same restrictions against e-cigarettes that we have against other tobacco products.” 

There is also no chance of Russia following some western states in legalising marijuana for personal or medicinal use, the minister said. “Absolutely not. Public opinion is completely negative on this,” she said. “I think that it is against humanity [to legalise cannabis].”

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