Debi Austin, who smoked through hole in throat in CA tobacco ads, dies


Health officials and Austin's family said Wednesday that the 62-year-old died of cancer.

Austin died Feb. 22 at a Van Nuys hospital, according to a family friend and spokesman Jim Walker.

She first appeared on television in 1996, telling viewers she started smoking when she was just 13 years old and could never quit. She spoke in a quiet, halting rasp. "They say nicotine isn't addictive," Austin would say 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, which is called a stoma. That stoma allowed her to breathe after her larynx was removed at age 42.

State health department officials say that particular TV spot was the most recognized and talked about tobacco control ad in California.

"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."

Austin eventually quit her two- to three-pack-a-day habit. Still, 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.

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