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Russian anti-smoking bill backed by lawmakers

By Sonia Elks

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian lawmakers on Friday backed a law which would ban smoking in bars, cafes and other public spaces to promote healthier living in the world's largest tobacco market after China.

Supported by President Vladimir Putin, who likes to present a healthy, active image, and has previously rebuked ministers for smoking, the bill was voted through in a second reading in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

The law - which must go through one more reading in both the lower and upper houses before being signed off by Putin - would also ban tobacco advertising entirely and restrict sales from kiosks.

The bill signals a culture shift in Russia, where cigarettes typically cost 50-60 roubles a packet (around $2) and bars and restaurants often lie under a thick blue haze of smoke.

Deputies applauded as the bill sailed through the State Duma, with 442 votes in favor, one against and one abstention.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has also spoken out in favor of the law in a personal video blog. He said that 44 million Russians, nearly one in three, are hooked on smoking, and almost 400,000 die every year of smoking-related causes.

However, the bill is controversial with Russian smokers.

"This bill is a veil, behind which they want to bring in another prohibition, only this time for tobacco," Andrei Loskutov, director of the All-Russia Movement for the Rights of Smokers, told Reuters.

"Let us act with understanding towards half of the adult population. Let us educate about giving up smoking with persuasion and education, and not throw out into the cold people who have spent their own money on a legal product."

Kiosk owners have said many could be driven out of business by the proposed changes. They have already been hard hit by a ban on selling alcohol last year.

The law is also opposed by tobacco companies such as British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco, and Philip Morris, which together control more than 90 percent of Russian sales and have been lobbying to soften the proposed legislation.

The Russian cigarette market was estimated to be worth around $22 billion in 2011 by Euromonitor International.

If passed, the restrictions will be phased in and are expected to be fully in force by 2016.

The Finance Ministry has also previously announced plans to increase excise duty on tobacco by around 40 percent for 2013 and 2014, and by 10 percent a year after 2015. The Health Ministry supports a greater increase in duty.

Putin, a judo black belt, lobbied successfully for Russia to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 soccer World Cup.

Russia also needs to improve public health to restore population growth after measures to boost the birth rate and improve healthcare stemmed a steep decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

(Reporting By Sonia Elks; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Myra MacDonald)

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