By Barbara Liston and Martinne Geller
ORLANDO, Fla./NEW YORK, April 5 (Reuters) - Coca-Cola Co is dropping its membership in a conservative national advocacy group that supports “Stand Your Ground” laws such as the one being used as a defense in the Florida killing of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin.
The move by the world’s biggest soft drink maker comes as corporate America faces increased scrutiny from consumers and shareholder activists over lobbying and political spending.
PepsiCo Inc ended its relationship with the group - the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - in January.
In a statement on Thursday, Coca-Cola made no direct mention of the controversial self-defense law pushed by ALEC that provides shooters with wide latitude for claiming self defense when they perceive a threat.
“The Coca-Cola Company has elected to discontinue its membership with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),” the statement said.
“Our involvement with ALEC was focused on efforts to oppose discriminatory food and beverage taxes, not on issues that have no direct bearing on our business. We have a long-standing policy of only taking positions on issues that impact our company and industry.”
Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, 28, a white and Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer who has claimed he acted in self defense and has not been charged with a crime.
At a rally in Sanford on Saturday, civil rights leaders said they were considering economic boycotts of national companies that support “Stand Your Ground” laws.
Coca-Cola and other ALEC member companies were targeted last year by the civil rights group ColorOfChange for their support of ALEC, which is also behind what ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson calls “voter suppression laws” in many states. The laws require voters to show identification.
Since Martin’s killing, Robinson said ColorOfChange has let the corporations know that ALEC was behind a push for states to adopt legislation modeled after Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Robinson declined to name which other companies the group is pursuing, saying their strategy is to give corporations a chance to withdraw from ALEC before escalating the issue publicly.
ALEC’s private enterprise board includes executives from companies including Pfizer Inc and Reynolds American , which stood by the group on Thursday along with Procter & Gamble Co, a member company.
“We don’t agree with every ALEC position, but we participate in ALEC’s healthcare forums because state legislators that are the members in ALEC, they make decisions that impact our business and the country’s business every day,” said Peter O’Toole, a spokesman for the world’s largest drugmaker.
Pfizer reviews its membership in outside organizations regularly, he said.
Reynolds, the maker of Camel cigarettes, said ALEC provides “a valuable forum for sharing of ideas and fostering better understanding of a broad range of both legislative and business issues.”
Cigarette-maker Altria Group, which has an employee on the ALEC board, said its involvement is focused on business-related issues.
Exxon Mobil Corp declined to comment as did Diageo Plc, which makes Johnnie Walker whisky and Smirnoff vodka.
Late on Thursday, Kraft Foods Inc said in an emailed statement: “We belong to many external groups, including ALEC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes growth and fiscal responsibility.
“ALEC covers numerous issues but our involvement has been strictly limited to discussions about economic growth and development, transportation and tax policy. We did not participate in meetings or conversations related to other issues.
“Our membership in ALEC expires this spring and for a number of reasons, including limited resources, we have made the decision not to renew.”
Companies that were not immediately available for comment included Johnson & Johnson, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, United Parcel Service Inc, among others.()
Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability in Washington, said he was not surprised that Pepsi and Coke were ahead of the pack in distancing themselves from ALEC, because they could be more vulnerable to a consumer boycott than other companies.
“Companies recognize that political spending poses a risk,” said Freed, whose group is also pressing companies to rein in their spending.
ALEC, which describes its mission as to advance the principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, said it would welcome back Coke if it ever had a change of heart.
“We definitely respect differences of opinion and ideas and whatever people want to do...,” said Kaitlyn Buss, spokeswoman for ALEC.
ALEC develops model bills, but one of the group’s insiders said it does not actively lobby.
“The legislators often have an idea, a concept or a thought and they go to ALEC to implement that thought,” said Victor Schwartz, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist who serves as co-chairman of the ALEC task force on civil justice. He was not speaking as an ALEC spokesman.
The investment firm Walden Asset Management in Boston gave a tally of a dozen large companies earlier this week that recently agreed to make new disclosures around their lobbying efforts, including: Coke, General Electric Co and Johnson & Johnson.
In a letter to ColorOfChange dated Jan. 25, 2012, PepsiCo told Robinson the company had decided to drop its decade-long membership in ALEC after its membership expired.
“We review all organizations in which we have membership each year to assure they serve a critical purpose for PepsiCo and its priorities,” Paul Boykas, vice president of public policy and government affairs said in the letter.
Robinson said Coca-Cola made its decision on Wednesday after ColorOfChange posted a Web page criticizing Coca-Cola’s continued support of ALEC. Robinson said the Web page was up for eight hours before ColorOfChange removed it based on Coca-Cola’s change of heart.