Debi Austin: Making an Impact

Debi Austin, the California woman who starred in the anti-smoking ad “Voicebox” from the 1990s, passed away February 22 at age 62.   She became an unlikely star in 1997 when an anti-smoking ad campaign showed her smoking through the hole in her throat after having her larynx removed due to cancer.

Debi started smoking in 1963 at age 13 before health warning labels first appeared on cigarette packs, and was smoking a pack a day before she left junior high.  Over the years her addiction built to a two- to three-pack a day habit which she couldn’t kick.  Even after she had her cancerous larynx removed in her early twenties, she continued to smoke.  Although articles have said she fought a 20 year battle with cancer, she actually had her first cancer before she was 21 when she was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.  It has been 20 years since she made her first ad for Tobacco Free California and has battled the tobacco industry.

An ad firm contacted her in 1996 to appear in a public service spot, but she threw their number away, embarrassed at letting others see how dumb she had been for smoking.  It wasn’t until her young niece, Joy, drew a spot on her own throat so she could be twins with her aunt that Debi knew she couldn’t have the tobacco industry “trap her niece.”

She found the phone number and called the ad agency.   Filming the ad in 1996 was her way to “get back at the tobacco industry,” an industry that earns profits “at the expense of its customer’s health.”  She was able to finally quit smoking after the ad came out, but the years of heavy smoking had already taken a toll on her health.   She also battled breast cancer, stomach cancer, cancer of the tongue and emphysema over the years.

Debi refused to wear a scarf over her neck citing the message delivered by seeing the stoma had a huge impact on her audience.  Her goal was to try to speak to a million kids before she died and get her message to them.  Whether in person or through her television ads, she not only surpassed her goal, her story will continue to make an impact in the future.

See more of Debi Austin’s story here.
Click here to read the entire article in the Sacramento Bee.
Florida educators can have an impact on their students by teaching tobacco prevention.  Click here for the link.

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