* Russians drinking 43% less per capita
* Study sees link between drinking and life expectancy
* Men now live to 68, up from 57 after Soviet breakup
* WHO credits alcohol policy reform
* Putin cultivates image of sobriety
By Tom Balmforth
MOSCOW, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Russia remains a nation of heavy drinkers, but alcohol consumption has fallen 43 percent from 2003 to 2016, a key factor in the country's rapid rise in life expectancy, the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday.
Russians consume the equivalent of 11-12 litres worth of pure ethanol a year, among the world's highest consumption levels, but the reduction since 2003 has substantially reduced mortality, the WHO said in a report.
Male life expectancy sank to a low of 57 years in the 1990s, but began to climb significantly in 2003 as drinking levels peaked, the report said.
It now stands at almost 68 years for men and 78 years for women. Mortality resulting from all causes dropped by 39 percent from 2003 to 2018 in men and by 36 percent for women, according to the study, which looked at trends over almost 30 years.
The study said there was a clear correlation between national alcohol consumption and mortality rates and life expectancy, and that the reduction in drinking resulted from government policies adopted from 2000.
"...our publication provides a clear causal link between the implementation of effective alcohol policies and a reversal of mortality trends," the study wrote.
President Vladimir Putin who has been in power since the turn of the century is battling a demographic slump. Last year the population contracted by 86,000 people, the first annual contraction recorded in a decade, the state statistics service said.
Putin has long cultivated an image of sobriety in contrast to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, whom many Russians associate with drunken and embarrassing gaffes.
The study pointed to alcohol policy reforms aimed at reducing the share of smuggled or home-made alcohol on the market, increasing alcohol excise taxes and raising the minimum price for vodka and other spirits. (Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)