NEW YORK -- Two teenagers with big midsections have an even bigger beef with McDonald's.
Their parents, on behalf of the youths, have filed a class-action lawsuit against the fast-food giant saying the chain's unhealthy meals made them obese, which caused them to develop severe health problems including heart disease.
John Banzhaf, a George Washington University law professor who pioneered lawsuits against tobacco firms, is acting as an adviser on the case.
He said children often are unable to resist the chain's playgrounds, Happy Meals, and toy promotions often tied to the release of popular movies.
"Children clearly are not capable of making health-related decisions," he said. "McDonald's tries to attract children and has an obligation to them."
Attorney Samuel Hirsch filed the suit in the New York Supreme Court in the Bronx in late August.
The suit comes just weeks after he filed another suit against McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy's on behalf of a 270-pound New York City maintenance worker.
That worker, Caesar Barber, 56, said he developed diabetes and suffered two heart attacks after eating the greasy fare from the fast-food restaurants four or five times a week for decades.
Banzhaf said that while Barber's suit is still snaking its way through the court system, Hirsch has decided to focus more on the suit involving children, since children can't be expected to be personally responsible for their health.
Hirsch did not respond to repeated phone calls.
The suit filed on behalf of the two teenagers claims that McDonald's contributed to their poor health and obesity by enticing them to consume larger portions through the use of "value meal" advertisements without disclosing the health effects.
The youths are asking that a jury decide how much they should be compensated for the harm they have suffered. They also want the court to order McDonald's to do more to publicize the dietary content of their products, including an educational program on the dangers of eating certain items.
Although the age of the youths has not been released, Hirsch's office said one is about 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 270 pounds, while the other is 5 feet 3 inches and weighs 200 pounds.
Apparently the two have been eating at McDonald's several times a week for years.
Walt Riker, a spokesman for McDonald's, said such suits have no merit.
He said the chain serves the same kinds of quality food -- beef, milk, chicken, lettuce, potatoes -- that families eat in their homes every day.
"McDonald's is a full-menu restaurant providing variety and choices," Riker said.
He said the chain makes comprehensive nutrition information available on the company's Web site, www.mcdonalds.com,
and that children are becoming overweight due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
The suits have resulted in a supersize round of mockery from some consumer and industry groups.
"The notion that there's no parental authority over these children is ridiculous," said Mike Burita, a spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization representing restaurant operators and individuals who want to preserve consumer choice. "Do little kids steal their parent's car keys and drive themselves to McDonald's?"
He said the suits have more to do with fattening attorney wallets than with thinning consumers.
Experts say the fast-food suits are a natural outgrowth of tobacco litigation, and that courtrooms can expect to see more of them in the future.
Walter Olson, a Manhattan Institute fellow specializing in legal-system issues, said it was clear that the suit was trying to cash in on the publicity over the tobacco settlements as well as reports showing rising obesity among children.
"These suits would have you believe that these kids have been robotically going to fast-food restaurants every day and that there's no one around to stop them," he said, adding that "most people should know that eating a Big Mac is different than eating lettuce."
Although Banzhaf agrees that fast food isn't inherently addictive like tobacco, he said McDonald's must provide clear health warnings just as cigarette makers do.
Banzhaf said the suits are grounded in a report released by the U.S. surgeon general last December that said obesity kills an estimated 300,000 Americans each year and costs $117 billion in health-related costs. There are nearly twice as many overweight children and almost three times as many overweight adolescents as there were in 1980.
"Even at Disneyland you find signs everywhere saying that kids have to be a certain height to get on certain rides," he said. "This should be obvious, but Disneyland doesn't want to be held liable if a parent isn't smart enough to know this."