Thick and thin

John Sutherland on the miracle cures for sale in US bookshops

To the mortification, doubtless, of its literary editor, for the past six months the New York Times bestseller list has prominently featured Kevin Trudeau's The Weight Loss Cure "They" Don't Want You to Know About, the follow-up to his 2003 blockbuster Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About.

Trudeau is the kind of quack who gives snake-oil merchants a good name. In earlier life a straight-forward crook, he served two years for passing dud cheques, while masquerading as a doctor to do so. More recently Trudeau's advocacy of a "cancer cure" (involving sea coral) has initiated a series of court actions brought by the FDA. But he pays the fines and carries on selling.

In his latest book, Trudeau offers a new miracle cure. Along with his invariable colonic irrigation regime (as many as seven a day), he has "rediscovered" the "miracle" weight-loss cure of a British endocrinologist of the 1950s, Dr Albert T Simeons, who claimed that daily hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) injections would allow the subject to survive on 500 calories a day while shedding weight so fast that every two weeks you'd need a new wardrobe.

Kevin himself claims that with the injections (photographic evidence attached) he lost "50 pounds in just 60 days without dieting, exercise, or surgery!" But hGC is a hormone found in the urine of pregnant women. No respectable medical authority backs the Simeons diet.

Trudeau -and self-proclaimed miracle workers like him - can operate because of a law passed in 1994 by Congress opened a "truck-sized loophole" (as its critics claim) for alternative medicines that can claim to be "dietary supplements".

Why does Trudeau sell so massively? Because so many Americans lack medical insurance. If you can't afford a doctor, or a therapist, or gym membership, $19.95 for Trudeau's book probably looks like a good deal. What he offers is not alternative medicine, but alternative health insurance. Lousy, but affordable.

Like Robert Ludlum's fiction, Trudeau's "remedies" draw on the massive paranoia that currently pervades American public life. "Buy my book," Trudeau says, "and learn about the unholy alliance between the federal agencies, the FDA and the FTC, and the pharmaceutical industry and how they work together to suppress the truth about natural healing. Learn how the food industry is purposely putting secret chemical ingredients in the food that can cause you to become hungrier, become fat, and become physically addicted, and not listing them on the label." It strikes a responsive chord, alas, and not all the good journalism in the world can blow it away.

When three Harry Potter titles cluttered up the top of the NYT fiction bestseller list, the paper devised a new "Children's Bestsellers" category to purge it. They should introduce a "Charlatan's Bestsellers" for books like Trudeau's.

"The Weight Loss Cure 'They' Don't Want You to Know About" is published by Alliance Publishing

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power