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An infomercial for Kevin Trudeau's book “Natural Cures 'They' Don’t Want You to Know About,” has helped turn his tome into the top New York Times self-help best seller.
By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 8/22/2005 7:50:50 PM ET 2005-08-22T23:50:50

Gerald Bates thought he found the answer to a prayer.  The 69-year-old Clyde N.Y., resident has Type II diabetes, and he's concerned about taking insulin injections. But one night in late June, he tuned into a breathtaking infomercial hosted by Kevin Trudeau — “Natural Cures 'They' Don’t Want You to Know About.”

Trudeau, a long-time infomercial master with a preacher's flair for the camera, urged viewers to buy his "Natural Cures" book. In it, Bates understood, readers would find simple, all-natural remedies for terrible conditions like cancer, diabetes, even weight gain.

"I was skeptical. But I thought, 'He pitches a good story,'" Bates said. So Bates paid $39.90 for the book.

Bates is hardly alone. Trudeau's infomercial has helped turn his tome into the top-ranked book on the New York Times self-help Best Seller list. The author says over 4 million copies have been sold. A mountain of the books sit on a table at the entrance of the Barnes & Noble on New York's Fifth Avenue, right next to the Harry Potter mountain. Television infomercials hawking the book are by one measure the most aired long-form ad on TV. 

But Bates, and other consumers, now say they were had. There are hundreds of angry posts on Amazon.com's page devoted to "Natural Cures."And about a dozen New York consumers have now contacted the New York State Consumer Protection Board.

"The book is just gobbledygook. There's nothing in it. He doesn't say what the cures are," Bates said. Instead, Bates said, on page after page the book urges readers to head to Trudeau's Web site, NaturalCures.com. Consumers must pay $10 a month to use the site. And for those calling the toll free number to purchase the book, operators work hard to tack on a Web site subscription. "Something should be done to pull that ad off TV."

Agency calls book a 'fraud'
That's a step being considered by the New York State Consumer Protection Board, which issued a scathing press release about the book Aug. 5, calling the infomercial "misleading" and the book a "fraud." Agency Chairperson Teresa A. Santiago said she might call on cable channels to drop the ads.

But Trudeau has filed a pre-emptive strike in federal court to keep his ads on the air. Last week, his lawyers filed a complaint in the Northern District of New York asking a judge to bar the state agency from making any requests to dump Trudeau's ads.

It's a question of First Amendment rights, Trudeau's lawyer, David J. Bradford, said.  Government agencies can't limit a person's right to sell a book, he said.

"We are not aware of a government agency trying to interfere with advertisement or sale of a book. It's unprecedented from that standpoint," Bradford said. "You just can't interfere with somebody's expression of opinion."

Opinion is one thing, says Santiago, but misleading advertising is another. "This is not a matter of ‘free speech’ as Mr. Trudeau claims. If you advertise the contents of a book, it had better contain what has been promised," Santiago said. "When you are doing an infomercial and you say you have the cure for diabetes and you go to the book and there's no cure for diabetes, that's an issue."

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FTC has reviewed infomercials
Trudeau is no stranger to the courtroom.  He's a convicted felon. In 1991 he pled guilty to credit card fraud — and has a long past of legal run-ins with federal regulators. In fact, he's barred from selling products on television now, as part of a 2004 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations involving misleading statements surrounding health care products. Trudeau admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to stop selling health care products. 

But the agreement doesn't prevent him from selling books.

In Trudeau's complaint against the New York Consumer Board, his lawyers say that both the book and the infomercials have been "reviewed" by the Federal Trade Commission for compliance with the 2004 settlement terms. 

"(The FTC) has not objected to the dissemination of either the book or the infomercials," the complaint says.

FTC attorney Heather Hippsley said the agency reviewed the book and early versions of the infomercials hawking the book and found them in compliance with the settlement. But she said Trudeau has multiple versions of the ad, and the agency has not reviewed them all.

Bradford maintained that all five versions of the infomercial have been sent to the FTC.

Meanwhile, Trudeau has sued the FTC, alleging that the agency defamed him when it issued a press release that he says incorrectly characterized his 2004 settlement with the agency. 

Hippsley said she couldn't comment on the book, other than to say the agency was "monitoring" to make sure Trudeau complied with the settlement. 

Despite Trudeau's history of run-ins with the agency, she said it could not ban him from producing infomercials for his book.

"To ban advertising for fully protected speech would be quite extraordinary and not something you'd want your government to be doing," she said.

Still, Delois Scurry, a 48-year-old Rochester, N.Y.-area resident, said she wished someone had banned the ad before she saw it. Scurry suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, so she ordered the book a few months ago hoping it contained information that would help reduce her reliance on blood pressure medication.

"There was nothing in it that he had talked about from the infomercial. He said there were cures. There was nothing like that in there ... it was just money down the drain," she said. "It is a big rip-off for him to go on national TV and come out and say there's a cure for cancer."

'Endorsement' from dead FDA official
The New York state board published a litany of similar complaints about the book in its press release. But agency officials agree Trudeau has the right to write whatever he wants in a book. Legally, the agency is attacking what it calls unfair advertising. 

But for each complaint, Trudeau's lawyers offer an answer.

For example, the agency cites what it calls a book jacket endorsement from Dr. Herbert Ley, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But, the agency notes, Ley could not have endorsed or even read Trudeau’s book because he died in 2001 — about three years before the book's release.

Bradford said the quote on the back of the book jacket was not meant to indicate Ley endorsed the book. "I don't think it's fair to say that's an endorsement of the book," he said.  "There's no suggestion that this individual read the book or endorsed the book."

In one of the infomercials, Trudeau tells Tammy Faye Bakker Messner — former wife of televangelist Jim Bakker — that the book includes the method Trudeau used to quit smoking. But in the book, argues the Consumer Protection Board, Trudeau simply points people to the Web site: “If you want to know the exact method that I used to quit smoking, go to www.naturalcures.com and become a private member."

Bradford said the book contains general comments about cures for addictions, which would include smoking addictions.

But are there cures in the book?
But the agency's chief complaint is that the book contains no cures for conditions like diabetes, as promised by the infomercial.

Bradford sternly objects to that claim. In a letter sent to the New York state board Aug. 8, Bradford argues that a diabetes cure is included in the text, referencing mention of a combination of herbs that treat diabetes recommended by Dr. Yung Su Kim, "a Korean living in Canada."

Internet discussion boards attempting to find Dr. Yung Su Kim's herbal combination point viewers to a Web page called TheTruthAboutDiabetes.info, where readers learn about a "traditional Chinese formula" called Six Flavor Tea, recommended by a Dr. Youngsoo Kim.

Bradford said he was confused by the assertion that the book contained no cures.

"This is a very misleading issue for them to raise," Bradford said. "The book has a whole chapter, chapter 6, devoted to identifying cures. There's a chart in it that identifies 50 diseases and gives a natural cure for each of them. To say it doesn't have information about cures indicates somebody hasn't read the book."

Government unnerved by book, Trudeau's lawyer says
More fundamentally, Bradford argues that Trudeau doesn't promise to provide a "magic pill" for disease in the book.

"It is important to know that people who are looking for a specific cure for a specific disease are missing the point of this book. A disease is simply a label put on a series of symptoms ... this is one of the things that medical science does not want you to know or understand," he said. He goes on to say that such labels help the pharmaceutical industry earn billions. "That topic has obviously struck a chord with millions of people."

The board's complaints arise because government agencies are irritated by the book's accusations that they are cooperating with pharmaceutical companies to ensure big profits, Bradford said.

"I don't really understand why there's this critical focus on the book when there are very few consumers who are complaining about the book," Bradford said. "(The book) really does challenge a paradigm. People who are picking on this line out of the book, or that line, are really ignoring why this book is so successful and the real message."

But Bates, the dissatisfied consumer, said he thinks Trudeau's message is not only useless, but it could be risky for some.

"It's not truthful and it's dangerous to some people," he said. "People might read it and quit taking their medications."

And Scurry thinks Trudeau is simply taking advantage of people who are desperate to find some light at the end of their unhealthy tunnels.

"He's preying on people's feelings and hopes that there is something that's out there that can cure a certain disease or sickness," she said. "And there isn't."

A New York federal court is expected to hear the Trudeau case Aug. 30.

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