LOS ANGELESA woman who smoked a cigarette through a hole in her throat to illustrate her struggle with nicotine addiction in a California public service advertisement has died of cancer, health officials and her family said Wednesday.
Debi Austin died Feb. 22 at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, according to family friend and spokesman Jim Walker. She was 62.
Austin first appeared on television in 1996, telling viewers she began smoking at age 13 and could never quit. In a quiet, halting rasp, Austin told the camera, "They say nicotine isn't addictive," before inhaling from a lit cigarette held to a hole in her throat.
"How can they say that?" Austin asked viewers, as cigarette smoke wafted from the hole.
Called a stoma, the hole in her throat allowed her to breathe after her larynx was removed at age 42.
The TV spot was "the most-recognized and talked about California tobacco control ad," according to the state health department.
"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," said Dr. Ron Chapman, who heads the health department. "She was an inspiration for Californians to quit smoking and also influenced countless others not to start."
Four months after the ad, Austin quit smoking - halting a two- to three-pack-a-day habit. She fought various forms of cancer for the rest of her life. She starred in other ads and spent the rest of her life advocating against the use of tobacco.
"True to Debi's spirit, she was a fighter to the end and leaves a big hole in our hearts and lives. 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," the family's statement said.
Here is Austin's memorable ad: