As he watched television one night about three months ago, Mike Hendry came across an infomercial for a book promising cures for a range of afflictions from diabetes to cancer.
Author Kevin Trudeau was smooth, reassuring and convincing as he pitched "Natural Cures 'They' Don't Want You to Know About." The normally skeptical Hendry, who has arthritis, shelled out $39.99 for the book.
"I wasn't too far into it before I realized it wasn't saying anything," the 39-year-old said.
Hendry is one of the millions of people who have helped Trudeau — a prolific pitchman who has done jail time — top The New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-sellers lists and hit No. 2 on the USA Today chart. It's an astonishing success for a self-published book dismissed by medical officials and labeled misleading by government officials. The high profile also led the New York Consumer Protection Board to warn people about the infomercial last month.
A federal judge on Sept. 6 granted an injunction at Trudeau's request to stop the board from asking cable stations to pull the infomercial. But U.S. District Court Judge Gary Sharpe noted that he hadn't previously issued a restraining order against the consumer board, as Trudeau had claimed in an Aug. 18 press release.
It's that kind of legal battle that Trudeau uses — along with the book's provocative title — to pump up the perception that the government is out to keep sick people sick, said Arthur Caplan, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania.
"He's anticipated any backlash with his cuckoo conspiracy theory; he's built a firewall around himself," Caplan said.
Caplan said the book preys on distrust of the health care system. "Too many people feel like they're getting the runaround, so they're susceptible to books like this."
"He uses the magic word 'cure.' That's a serious statement for people who are vulnerable and desperate for some sort of help," said Theresa Santiago, chairwoman of New York's Consumer Protection Board.
Trudeau countered that the consumer agency, Federal Trade Commission and doctors are upset because they're pawns of drug companies. Doctors are trained primarily in surgery and prescribing drugs and receive virtually zero training in nutrition, he told The Associated Press.
The overwhelming majority of readers love his book, he said, and the book has a return rate of less than 3 percent. Infomercials for "Natural Cures" are still airing nationally, despite a settlement with the FTC last year that banned Trudeau from doing infomercials "that advertise any type of product, service, or program to the public, except for truthful infomercials for informational publications," according to the FTC.
"They've made false charges against me," Trudeau told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "In every single case, they've had to drop the charges, and they've had to sign a document stating, after the full investigation, no finding of any wrongdoing. No finding!"
When the settlement was announced, The FTC said, "This ban is meant to shut down an infomercial empire that has misled American consumers for years," referring to various other products Trudeau has endorsed. The current infomercial is exempt because it's an expression of an opinion protected by the first amendment, said FTC attorney Laura Fishman.
"I'm not a medical doctor," Trudeau told Smith. "I state that in the book. That's why I'm qualified to talk about health. Because I'm not a drug pusher. I'm not a pharmaceutical rep."
He said he has studied independently by visiting medical institutions around the world and reading books on a wide range of health topics.
He argues that his book, which now sells for $17.49 on Amazon.com, wouldn't have sold millions of copies unless it helped people.
Trudeau also advises not to see a psychiatrist and never talk to a psychologist.
"There is a great book called 'Psychiatry: The Ultimate Betrayal' — read the book," he said. "Persons can make their own decision … That's my opinion. I give you the references. You can make your own choice."
Bookstores, which pride themselves on freedom of expression, have been stocking the book, although some more reluctantly than others. While a spokeswoman for the superstore chain Borders Group Inc., said, "our primary commitment is to let customers choose what to buy," a manager at New York's Coliseum Books acknowledged that he once helped talk a customer out of buying Trudeau's book.
"We don't say anything about the book unless somebody asks. But if people ask, I'm certainly frank about it," said Coliseum's Allan Kelin, who said he discussed the book's controversial history with the customer.
At Books & Books Inc. in Coral Gables, Fla., owner Mitchell Kaplan said that when he first saw Trudeau's infomercial, "I didn't have a lot of confidence in what he was saying." Still, Kaplan keeps a few copies on hand. "I just don't think it's right not to sell it," he said.
Disputed books are common in publishing, whether the political opinions of Ann Coulter or the dietary recommendations of Robert C. Atkins. But books actually pulled from shelves are usually guilty of extensive plagiarism, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin's "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," or deemed a fake, like "Fragments of a Childhood 1939-1948," a Holocaust memoir by Binjamin Wilkomirski.
Amy Hertz, who heads a new imprint at Doubleday that has released a couple of health books, said she was offered the manuscript for "Natural Cures," but turned it down. She was impressed by Trudeau, but not by his book.
"It's great that he's stirring up the pot, but I just worry that you can't get enough of the answers from the book. You have to subscribe to the Web site," said Hertz, publisher of Morgan Road Books.
"I feel these kinds of books work when the author is on a mission to help and money is secondary." Trudeau's book points readers to his Web site, which charges a fee.
"I sell no products, I take no advertising," Trudeau said. "We have 500 people on staff that's being put together. Obviously you need to get information out and charge a fee."
Asked if he fears that if people subscribe and decide to follow his advice that he may end up costing their lives, Trudeau said, "I'm afraid that people will take drugs like Vioxx and 150,000 people are going to die. That's the story. People are taking drugs right now, even the American Medical Association said last year, 900,000 people died from non-prescription and prescription drugs. And that's the story that nobody wants me to talk about."
David Bradford, Trudeau's attorney, referred to a chart in the book that identifies about 50 different diseases and cures; sometimes the "cure" is to go to a doctor. In one chapter, Trudeau lists vitamin E as a cure for blood clots, and infrared sauna and raw apple cider vinegar as cures for dandruff.
"He's careful to say you need to work with a licensed practitioner in certain cases. Beyond that, the thrust of the book is that you need to stop thinking about a magic patented pill," Bradford said.
Trudeau said the regulatory agencies are only acting to protect pharmaceutical companies.
"Their actions against me only show what I'm saying is true," he said.
As part of Trudeau's settlement with the FTC last year, he paid $2 million — in cash, a Mercedes-Benz and property — over an infomercial the FTC said gave misleading information.
Other products Trudeau has promoted that led to fraud charges include Exercise in a Bottle, Fat Trapper Plus and a Mega Memory System, according to the Consumer Protection Board. He also pleaded guilty to larceny in 1990 in Massachusetts after being charged with depositing $80,000 in worthless checks.
In 1991, he pleaded guilty to credit-card fraud in federal district court and was sentenced to nearly two years in prison. He also marketed multilevel distributorships for "Nutrition for Life" vitamins that generated lawsuits by at least 10 states' attorneys general in the mid-1990s. Trudeau and his partners paid at least $185,000 to settle charges that they were running an illegal pyramid scheme.