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Star of 'Voicebox' anti-smoking ads dies after 20-year cancer battle

Debi Austin became an influential anti-tobacco advocate in a series of TV ads that showed the dangers of smoking.
Debi Austin became an influential anti-tobacco advocate in a series of TV ads that showed the dangers of smoking./

The California woman who appeared in the dramatic 1996 anti-smoking television commercial “Voicebox,” has died after a 20-year battle with cancer. Debi Austin was 62.

Austin, who was known as California's most well-known anti-smoking advocate, died on Feb. 22, public health director Dr. Ron Chapman announced on the state's website this week.

“We are saddened by Debi’s death,” Chapman said on the site. “She exemplified the real toll tobacco takes on a person’s body.”

In “Voicebox,” Austin, who had her larynx removed, inhales a cigarette through the surgical hole in her throat. She recalls smoking her first cigarette at age 13.

“When I found out how bad it was, I tried to quit,” she says. “But I couldn’t. They say nicotine isn’t addictive. How can they say that?”

“Voicebox,” Austin’s first ad for the California tobacco control program, also aired in New York and Hawaii. Austin, the woman the state calls its most well-known anti-smoking advocate, later appeared in other commercials in which she warned of the dangers of smoking.

“Gradually tobacco took not just my health but my dreams,” she says though gasps in “Candle.” “Think about what tobacco is taking from you. Quit not before it’s too late.”

“Debi was a pioneer in the fight against tobacco and showed tremendous courage by sharing her story to educate Californians on the dangers of smoking,” Chapman said. “She was an inspiration for Californians to quit smoking and also influenced countless others not to start. We trust she will continue to touch those that hear her story, particularly teens and young adults.”

In a family statement, loved ones mourned “our beloved sister, aunt and dear friend,” and noted her 20-year struggle against cancer.

“True to Debi’s spirit, she was a fighter to the end and leaves a big hole in our hearts and lives,” the statement said. “Debi will be remembered fondly by those who love her to be caring, courageous, very funny and always there to offer advice or lend a hand. She was passionate and outspoken about what she believed in and deeply touched all who knew her or heard her story.”

Though they can be hard to watch, commercials like Austin’s are effective in spreading the anti-smoking message, said Andrew Strasser, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the effectiveness of anti-smoking public service announcements.

“Even on just a simple level, it opens the dialog because you see how this can turn out for someone who chooses to smoke,” he said. “For youth, it might be a good method of prevention, so you don’t end up this way, and for current smokers, it’s a good reminder that it’s better to quit not and not end up here.

“Her message resonated for a lot of people, both at risk and current smokers,” Strasser said.

Strasser has used Austin’s ads in his research, in which asks people what they remember a week after seeing a public service announcement.

“Her message always scored very well,” he said. “Her story really stuck with people. It had good staying power so I think they were very effective.”