Health-scare huckster Kevin Trudeau was recently convicted of criminal contempt for continuing to lie in TV infomercials and was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a U.S. District Judge (he is appealing the decision).
You may remember Trudeau from his infomercials a decade ago for memory enhancers, snoring treatments, and other questionable products. But mostly he hawked his book Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, which sold 5 million copies (groan). The “natural cures” included magic juices, colonic irrigation and other purges, bee pollen, hydrogen peroxide, enzyme pills, and dozens of other ineffective or harmful procedures and products.
Over the years the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) repeatedly charged Trudeau with making false claims, banned him from marketing more nonsense, and fined him millions of dollars—which he said he was unable to pay. But he kept at it. Trudeau must have set some kind of record for getting so much misinformation, combined with out-and-out paranoia and conspiracy theories, between two covers. He warned that doctors, scientists, and drug companies, along with the government, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and the media are all corrupt and out of control. “They” actually want you to be overweight and sick, and thus suppress true cures. Even worse, “they” sell you drugs that actually cause diseases. What’s more, sunblocks cause cancer; AIDS is a hoax; cholesterol is baloney. You should never have surgery. Microwaved foods will poison you. You get the picture.
Trudeau may be going, going, gone, but health-related conspiracy theories live on. This was made clear by a nationwide survey of 1,350 adults recently reported in JAMA Internal Medicine. It found that 37 percent of them agreed that the FDA is intentionally suppressing natural cures for cancer because of drug company pressure; 20 percent agreed that health officials suppress data linking cell phones to cancer; 20 percent agreed that doctors and the government know that vaccines are dangerous but still promote them; and 12 percent agreed that fluoridation is a secret way for chemical companies to dump dangerous waste products into the environment.
Overall, half believed in at least one medical conspiracy. Not surprisingly, the study found that conspiracy beliefs influence behavior: that is, believers were more likely to use herbal supplements, avoid conventional medicines, skip flu shots, not use sunscreen, and so on.
How can such ideas take hold? There has been a particularly large market for anti-science in recent years, especially when seasoned with distrust of government and “experts.” Of course, it’s true that doctors and researchers are not always right, that some studies turn out to be flawed, that medical guidelines often need revision, and that many drugs do have serious side effects. But none of this means that Trudeau was right.
When it comes to health care, we all need to ask questions, quiz our doctors about the advice they give, and keep up with medical and nutritional advances, as well as medical failures. We all need a healthy, lifelong supply of skepticism—so that when the next Trudeau comes along, as they always do, we can say, “I’m not buying your ideas or your products."