Kremlin says Russians are drinking less and exercising more. Are they?

Only to a degree, say analysts.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
An employee takes a bottle of vodka to place it on a shelf at the Vinoteka specialized wine and vodka store in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia, in February.

The Kremlin says Russians are drinking and smoking far less and exercising far more than just a few years ago. Has Russia finally gotten the upper hand on the chronic health problems that have caused its demographic decline?

Maybe not. Experts warn that while Russians do appear to be living healthier lives now, the improvement shown in figures gathered by Rosstat, the official statistics agency, are likely an effort to demonstrate that President Vladimir Putin is fulfilling three-year-old election pledges.

"The statistics are not clear," says Margarita Pozdnyakova, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. "Many researchers do say there's a slight tendency for people to drink less, but is another part of the population just using more exotic drugs? As for tobacco, the impression is that Russians smoke as much as in the past."

The report says that smoking among adult Russians fell dramatically, from more than 33 percent in 2008 to around 28 percent five years later, while per capita consumption of alcohol dropped from more than 16 liters (4.2 gallons) annually to less than 12 liters (3.1 gallons) in the same period. It also said that almost one in three Russians claimed to be "exercising regularly" in 2014, up from about one in five two years earlier.

Alcohol abuse has also abated sharply, it claims. Alcoholism has long plagued Russia, contributing to the premature death of 37 percent of Russian men in the 1990s. Though that figure has dropped in the Putin era, it remains high by world standards. According to the study, the death rate from alcohol poisoning plunged from 9.7 people per 100,000 in 2013 to 8.9 just one year later.

Ms. Pozdnyakova says Rosstat figures only reflect liquor sold through registered shops, while a great deal of alcohol here is traditionally "samagon," or moonshine. The amount of illegal liquor could be on the rise; prices for legal spirits are growing sharply due to inflation and government-imposed excise taxes.

Still, alcoholic drinks in Russia remain extremely cheap by world standards. A half-liter bottle of vodka can be bought for as little as 240 rubles, about $4, in Moscow.

"It's hard to nail this down exactly, but our studies show that alarming numbers of people are still drinking, including teenagers," she says.

It's a very controversial subject in Russia, where a severe demographic crisis dating from the awful decade following the collapse of the USSR is only now being felt in the form of a shrinking labor force, fewer potential military recruits, and a rapidly aging population.

The first decade of the Putin era saw a doubling of living standards, accompanied by vigorous government programs to boost motherhood that led to rising birthrates. The government also took hard aim at vodka and cigarettes, launching educational campaigns, restricting places and hours of sale, and banning some kinds of advertising.

But Putin has purposely avoided the forceful approach used by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw public health statistics improve drastically after he completely banned the sale of alcoholic drinks in the Soviet Union. But Mr. Gorbachev's methods led to a political backlash, an explosion in samogon production, and a return to heavy drinking with a vengeance by Russians following the USSR's collapse.

Most experts say the claim of improvements over the past few years sounds reasonable on principle, but the picture painted by the government report is far from conclusive.

"I think people do drink less; but it's mostly a subjective impression. The situation today can't be compared with past decades, when you could see men drunk on the streets every day," says Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, an expert at the official Institute of National Economic Forecasting in Moscow. "We do seem to be living in a different reality."

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