The diet you don’t want to know about

After multiple trials and appeals, Kevin Trudeau is finally facing ten years of jail time for defrauding countless customers who bought his series of weight-loss books.

When 51-year-old Kevin Trudeau, one of America’s most successful TV pitchmen, appeared before US District Judge Ronald Guzman in Chicago in March, he had one shot at convincing the judge to be lenient when sentencing him for having defrauded countless consumers who bought his book The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About. Could the silver-tongued salesman work his magic one more time?

Trudeau had become famous and incredibly wealthy through late-night TV infomercials in the early 2000s that plugged his weight-loss book as well as several others, including Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About and Debt Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.

The core message in his health-cure books was that “they” — the US Food and Drug Administration and the pharmaceutical industry — withheld information from the public in order to bolster the industry’s profits. His book on natural cures didn’t contain information on any specific cures, Trudeau claimed, because the FDA would not allow him to publish any.

Trudeau artfully played on the public’s growing belief in the benefits of natural remedies and, at the same time, exploited a widespread suspicion of Big Government and Big Pharma. It was a powerful combination that made him rich and famous from the sale of millions of his books. However, the claims in his books also attracted the attention of US federal authorities and were criticized by healthcare experts, who said many of his assertions had no scientific validity.

A myriad of criminal and civil legal problems ensued, including a lawsuit launched by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which in 1998 accused Trudeau of having made false and misleading claims in infomercials for products he said “could cause significant weight loss and cure addictions to heroin, alcohol, and cigarettes, and enable users to achieve a photographic memory.” The matter was finally resolved in 2004 when Trudeau agreed to pay a US$500,000 fine.

The previous year, the FTC had also begun a proceeding against Trudeau in the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois for having falsely claimed that a product called Coral Calcium Supreme could cure cancer. In July 2003, Trudeau agreed to stop making the claim.

He ignored that agreement, however, and in 2004 was found in contempt of court. The FTC fined him US$2 million and banned him for life from “appearing in, producing, or disseminating future infomercials that advertise any type of product, service, or program to the public, except for truthful infomercials for informational publications,” and other restrictions.

Once again Trudeau chose to keep pushing his books, seemingly bolstered by what he alleged was an ongoing attempt by the powers that be to keep him from publishing the truth. He aired his infomercials, according to prosecutors, “at least 32,000 times,” a figure they described as conservative.

This time he pushed his luck too far. In 2007, he was found in contempt of the 2004 court order and a year later was fined US$37.6 million, the amount the judge determined consumers had paid for his weight-loss book via the infomercials.

Trudeau appealed the judgment. On November 29, 2011, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision and added that Trudeau had to post a US$2-million bond prior to engaging in any future infomercials. The pitchman claimed he was impoverished and filed for bankruptcy. It was a ploy, according to prosecutors, who noted that Trudeau still enjoyed an opulent lifestyle. They believed he had stashed assets off-shore prior to his alleged change in financial circumstances.

After he failed to pay his fines, Trudeau was convicted of criminal contempt in November 2013. About four months later, he stood in front of Judge Guzman and made what was likely his most important pitch ever. This time he was dressed not in his customary expensive designer clothes but in an orange jailhouse jumpsuit.

He was a changed man, he told the judge, as he apologized for his lengthy career of making false assertions about the products he endorsed. During his pre-sentencing incarceration, he said, he’d undergone a “significant reawakening,” inspired by meditation, prayer and reading self-help books. “In the past four months I have been stripped of all ego, defiance, arrogance and pride and for that I am thankful. If I ever do an infomercial again, I promise: no embellishments, no puffery, no lies.”

As Trudeau awaited his fate, it’s possible the judge took into consideration the alarming increase in weight-loss fraud sweeping through the US (and, by default, Canada).

In January, the FTC had charged four companies with “deceptively marketing weight-loss products, asserting they made ‘unfounded promises’ that consumers could shed pounds simply by using their food additives, skin creams and other dietary supplements,” The New York Times reported.

The Times noted some of the too-good-to-be-true claims: “Get a gym body without going to the gym” by sprinkling a powder on your food. “Significantly slim your thighs and buttocks” using an almond-scented cream. Lose up to one pound a day with just two drops of another product under the tongue.

“The four companies — Sensa Products, L’Occitane, HCG Diet Direct and LeanSpa — will collectively pay [US]$34 million to refund consumers,” the paper reported. “They neither admitted nor denied fault in the case.”

The newspaper pointed out that the weight-loss industry had “exploded in recent years,” noting that US consumers would spend about US$66 billion in 2014 “on diet soft drinks, dietary supplements and other products aimed at weight loss.”

Canadians spend “at least $6 billion annually on weight loss surgeries, pills, special diets and meal replacements,” the Toronto Star reported in 2011. “Close to a third of that is spent by the highest risk people — those so overweight they are medically classified as obese. Weight loss will happen on ‘autopilot’ boasts one surgical clinic. A weight loss company claims its oral hormone and strict diet will ‘reprogram your metabolism’ and ‘melt away’ a pound of fat a day.”

Dr. Arya Sharma, a Calgary-based expert on obesity, told the paper that the weight-loss industry “is pretty much a free-for-all. This opens the door for anybody who wants to make a quick buck.”

In 2011, weight-loss fraud in the US accounted for 13% of the fraud claims submitted to the FTC, the Times reported, more than twice the number in any other category. And the FTC has taken on weight-loss fraud in a series of wryly named operations, the Times said. They included Operation Waistline in 1997, which targeted seven companies advertising such products as Slimming Soles shoe insoles; and Operation Big Fat Lie in 2004, which resulted in false-marketing charges against six companies, including one that sold a diet pill containing Nepalese mineral pitch, a paste-like material that “oozes out of the cliff face cracks in the summer season” in the Himalayas. It claimed that users could lose up to 37 pounds in eight weeks, while eating whatever they wanted, if they used the pill.

It became apparent that Judge Guzman wasn’t going to swallow Trudeau’s claims that he was no longer a modern snake-oil salesman. Nor did he hold sympathy for the argument presented by Trudeau’s lawyer that the most any victim lost was the cost of a book, about US$30. He called Trudeau an “unrepentant, untiring and uncontrollable huckster who has defrauded the unsuspecting for 30 years.” Guzman even noted that Trudeau once used his mother’s social security number in a scheme, the Mail Online reported.

Trudeau, he said, is “deceitful to the very core,” and “steadfastly attempted to cheat others for his own gain.” His voice quivering with anger, the judge found Trudeau had “treated federal court orders as if they were mere suggestions. ... or impediments to be side-stepped, out-manoeuvered or just ignored.”

It is unlikely any Canadian court would have come close to imposing the sentence he then handed out: 10 years in prison. The punishment might seem harsh, but it also seems justified considering how much money Trudeau, who had no training in the areas he wrote about, was able to extract from people desperate to lose weight or who were frantically searching for a cure for a terrible medical condition. He exploited the former but endangered the health of many of the latter, a crime that deserved more than a slap on the wrist.

There’s no way to lose weight other than through diet, exercise or surgery by a medical specialist. And while some “natural” medicines can be very beneficial, it’s hard to separate the good from the snake oil.

Trudeau obviously didn’t care about the truth or the consequences of his fear-mongering claims. He now has 10 years to think about what “they” want him to know about crime and punishment.