It has been an absorbing day at the ICAP 'Global Actions: Initiatives to Reduce Harmful Drinking' conference here in Washington DC.

The conference is centred around initiatives undertaken by the drinks industry to tackle alcohol misuse, in particular those initiated in low- to middle- income countries since the adoption of the World Health Organization's (WHO) 'Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol' in May 2010.

Journalists love to report on discord and conflict, and may even - heaven forfend - sometimes overegg disagreements for sensationalist purposes. But, this conference has to be seen in the context not only of the WHO strategy, but also of the longstanding difficult relationship that the industry has had with the WHO in Geneva.

In spite of what some might characterise as an institutionalised scepticism towards industry engagement in alcohol harm prevention, the WHO strategy explicitly included the involvement of economic operators, and it is in response to that aspect of the strategy that the Global Actions programme was initiated.

Consequently, the WHO and its relationship with the drinks industry has been much discussed on day one, whether on the platform, in the panel discussions or generally around the venue. ICAP president Marcus Grant and Brown-Forman CEO Paul Varga opened proceedings by stressing how the industry is striving to address alcohol-related harm through countless initiatives, often in partnership with government and civil society organisations. ICAP's report on these activities was published to coincide with the conference.

The Kenyan Ambassador to the UN, Tom Mboya Okeyo, was clearly impressed by and appreciative of industry-led actions. He called on the industry to communicate to the WHO what it is doing. This is certainly what the industry has been doing and will be continuing to do. For industry representatives, however, it is the degree to which the WHO is prepared to listen that has been in question.

The exposition of industry actions continued with presentations about initiatives from producers, sellers and marketers of alcohol and industry-led community engagement activities. Concurrent panel sessions examining these four areas in more detail followed after lunch, during which Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Carlos Brito spoke about his company's approach and industry's role in promoting responsible consumption.

Further breakout panel sessions were held later in the afternoon covering data sharing, evaluation and the important issue of conflicts of interest, particularly significant given the views held by many within the public health community that industry should have no part in preventative interventions whatsoever.

While all this valuable discussion and interesting insight was being shared, the elephant in the room was the WHO, and specifically why there was no representation - not even at observer level - from that body at this conference. 

The conference organisers have stressed that this is not a corporate love-in. Around a third of the delegates are from industry with government representatives and other non-industry attendees accounting for the remainder. On the platforms and in the panels, there are representatives from outside the drinks industry also. But the health NGO community and the WHO have stayed away.

At the end of the day, attention was once again focused on the WHO when Daniel Spiegel, former US Permanent Representative to the UN (Geneva), addressed the conference during dinner. 

While Spiegel was expressing his own views, rather than those of ICAP or the drinks industry, his strident criticism of the WHO for its reluctance to engage with the private sector in its efforts to address non-communicable diseases (NCDs) - alcohol-related harm being one of the WHO's primary NCD priorities - will have struck a chord with industry delegates.

While industry advocates have quietly expressed their frustrations about WHO Geneva in the past, the tone struck by Spiegel is clearly not shared by the primary industry spokespeople here and by ICAP. They believe there are grounds to hope for greater engagement with the WHO Secretariat going forward, based on informal discussions both between ICAP and WHO representatives and an informal meeting between industry CEOs and WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan last year. Another reason for optimism is that Dr Chan will, to a significant degree, be taking her lead from member states, and industry advocates believe there is fundamental support for what industry is doing at national government level, illustrated for example by Tom Mboya Okeyo's remarks.

Another reason for optimism is that industry is going further than the Global Actions already undertaken. Specifically, at the end of the second day of this conference (9 October), Pernod Ricard CEO Pierre Pringuet will unveil a new set of commitments by CEOs of major beer, wine and spirits producers. 

The precise details of these commitments, which relate to underage drinking, marketing codes of practice, consumer information, product innovation, drink driving and the engagement of retailers in harm reduction measures, are yet to be revealed. But ICAP says they represent "an unprecedented collective pledge about new ways they will conduct their businesses". 

When Pringuet takes to the platform, the audience here will be listening with rapt attention. One hopes - in spite of the time difference - they will be listening in Geneva too.

To read a review of the second day of the ICAP conference, click here.