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A determined ex-smoker wants kids to shun cigarettes

Debi Austin's 1997 TV commercial, in which she smoked through the laryngectomy hole in her throat, was just the beginning of her mission.

December 26, 2010|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Former smoker Debi Austin wants to warn a million young people about the dangers of cigarettes. "Its kind of hard to argue with me," she says.
Former smoker Debi Austin wants to warn a million young people about the… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

In 1992, Debi Austin had a laryngectomy after she was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Austin had smoked her first cigarette at 13 and, even after surgery, remained a two- to three-pack-a-day smoker.

The image of her smoking through the hole in her throat in a 1997 state-sponsored anti-smoking ad has remained indelible. In the ad she said: "They say nicotine isn't addictive." She took a puff and asked: "How can they say that?"

Austin, of Canoga Park, finally quit smoking months after the ad aired.

Now 60, Austin spoke with The Times recently after announcing new anti-smoking ads with state public health officials.

The commercials featuring the feisty, raspy-voiced self-described "tobacco educator" are to begin airing next month.

Question: What are you doing these days — a lot of public speaking?

Answer: Yes. My ideal audience is young adults who think they know everything. I go to court schools, youth authorities any time I'm asked because these are the kids who don't get it.

Q: How do they react?

A: When I go into a school, all the kids know who I am, probably from the teacher's warning. One of the last things I want them to think about when they walk out of that room is that people remember me because of the stupid things I did. Don't be remembered because of the poor choices you made.

Q: Do they listen?

A: It's kind of hard to argue with me. They try to justify it. They say they like the taste. I just take the tube out of my pocket that I use to clean my throat, my stoma, and say "You want this?" Most people think, "This cigarette gives me enjoyment." But what's it taking? For young people, they're giving up their goals.

Q: Do you talk to adults, to older people too?

A: Not unless I have to. They don't call me for the Rotary Club.

Q: Why do you think people smoke?

A: It is about acceptance. It is about our insecurities. That's why I ask them to think about why they had their first cigarette — not right then, but to go home and think about it.

Q: Why did you decide to speak out?

A: I like bullying the bullies.

Q: Are you against big tobacco?

A: I am not anti-tobacco. I am a tobacco educator. I don't tell people what to do. But you have a right to know about the product.

Q: What do you think about the other anti-smoking ads out there — for instance, the truth campaign?

A: Any message that gets out there that will make any portion of the people stop and think is worth it.

Q: What was one of the strangest experiences you have had since the ad aired in 1997?

A: A biker bar in Orange County printed out a picture of me from the ad and put it up. The guy there said we do a lot of things, but we care about our kids.

Q: What bar?

A: [laughing] Just a biker bar in Orange County! I also walked into a cigar shop once — when I do presentations, sometimes people ask me about the price of things, so I like to check — and the guy behind the counter said, "Am I going to be on TV?"

Q: Why do you think so many people remember you?

A: I'm scary. How many people have ever seen somebody with a hole in their throat that would tell you what it's from?

Q: How is your health now?

A: I have a constant upper-respiratory infection. I have emphysema and they want to put me on oxygen but I refused, because once you're on it you stay on it. So I have to have forced air at night.

Q: What is your goal now?

A: I'm going to speak to a million kids before I'm done.

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