CHATSWORTH — If you relish contradiction, consider the Camels in Debi Austin's leather cigarette case and the stainless steel tube that keeps the hole in her throat open so she can breathe.
That sobering combination may well make Austin, who lives in Canoga Park, something of a media star in the coming weeks. In a powerful new anti-smoking ad sponsored by the state of California, she dramatizes the addictive nature of cigarettes by dragging on one through the opening a surgeon left in her neck after removing her cancerous larynx more than four years ago.
Once a three-packs-a-day smoker, the 46-year-old Austin now contents herself with one pack of cigarettes a month, consumed in the startling manner she displays on the TV spot.
"It's strictly a lung thing, which makes it dumber," she said in an interview Saturday in a Chatsworth restaurant. "At least when you smoke through your mouth, you've got two or three things filtering the smoke before it gets to the lungs. But this is a direct hit. It's extra stupid."
Austin, who stands 5-feet-5 and weighs 300 pounds, has a ready laugh and a matter-of-fact approach not only to her debility but to the alcohol and drug addictions she said she's been free of since 1985. Her silver-blond hair is cut short and stylish. Her carefully tended nails are painted pink. Among the jewelry she wears is a kind of necklace that helps hold in place and obscure the 2 1/2-inch-long tube inserted into her windpipe.
Her voice is a strained, throaty rasp. It took her two years after surgery to learn to speak without the aid of a mechanical device inserted into the mouth. Unable to inhale orally, she had to master swallowing air and expelling it while forming words, in what she calls "a burping process."
She also employs the air-swallowing method to light her cigarettes while holding them between her lips--the only time she can taste the tobacco.
The route that led to her cigarette habit, to her surgery and ultimately to the house in Pasadena where the anti-smoking spot was filmed in February, began on Farralone Avenue in Canoga Park. It was on Farralone, she recalled, that she and some friends walking home from Columbus Junior High School smoked an unfiltered Camel that the 13-year-old Austin had filched from her father. It was her first cigarette.
"Of course, to be really tough, you had to inhale, so I took this big old hit," she said. "There was this big mailbox there, and I remember just sliding down that mailbox, I was so dizzy. We ended up, four or five of us, sitting on the curb--green and spitting tobacco."
By high school, Austin was buying a pack of unfiltered Camels every day, and through an adult career as office manager of a small private telephone company, her habit increased.
She sought treatment for a chronic sore throat in the early 1980s and in 1992 noticed a small lump under her jaw. A biopsy confirmed cancer of the larynx. Prior to surgery, Austin's doctor sent her to a support group for people who had undergone removal of their larynxes.
"I'd never met or heard anyone who'd had a laryngectomy," she said. "I thought, 'Omigod, I make my living on the telephone and now I'm going to sound like Elmer Fudd on Thorazine for the rest of my life.' Afterward I sat on my boss' desk crying. I thought, 'I have no options.' "
The surgery was performed Dec. 4, 1992, at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. This December, she said, rapping a fist on the restaurant table for luck, she'll pass the five-year benchmark without exhibiting any signs of resurgent cancer.
Austin, who exists on Social Security disability payments primarily for respiratory allergies she developed after surgery, said she was "well compensated" for the anti-smoking ad. She declined to specify how much she was paid.
She said she was approached about doing the spot through the American Cancer Society, which is connected with the New Voice Club, the laryngectomy support group to which she belongs. She agreed immediately, she said; with no children of her own to dissuade, she welcomed the opportunity to encourage young people not to begin smoking.
"People that have smoked for years and tried everything to quit and couldn't aren't going to pay attention to these commercials anyway," she said. "But someone who's never picked up a cigarette maybe won't pick one up because of them. Young people may not be able to relate to the effects of smoking in their grandmothers and grandfathers. It's a lot easier to relate to someone 46--that's their mothers' age. . . . This is how I hope they can relate to it. This is how I want my 4-year-old niece to relate to it."
When the ad--one of a dozen TV and radio spots that constitute the opening salvo in a three-year, $67.5-million media blitz by the state health department--begins running Monday, Austin's public-recognition quotient is sure to rise.