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Woman Who Smoked Through Voicebox For Haunting Anti-Smoking PSA Dies

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Deborah "Debi" Austin, who became famous for taking a drag on a cigarette through her voicebox in a powerful anti-smoking PSA in the 1990's, died last week at the age of 62.

In the unforgettable PSA, Austin says in her raspy voice between belabored breaths: "They say nicotine isn't addictive." She takes a drag from a cigarette through her voicebox and asks: "How can they say that?"

Austin had been a smoker from the age of 13, but she became an anti-tobacco activist after she lost her voice to cancer caused by her two or three pack-a-day habit. The state of California asked her to participate in a PSA, but she said that she was hesitant initially: "Do I want to stand up in front of the entire state and tell them that I lost my voice because I couldn't control my addiction? I don't think so."

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Then one night when she went out to dinner, her young niece drew a black dot on her own throat to match her aunt's. Austin said, "That's when I realized how much I had sacrificed for the tobacco industry."

The Canoga Park resident continued to film advertisements for anti-smoking groups in the decades that followed. She said, "Being a tobacco educator is the one thing you can give back. You can literally help someone change their life, and I can't imagine anything that would be enjoyable and more rewarding than that."

Austin was finally able to quit smoking, but the addiction had already taken a toll on her body. She had been fighting cancer for two decades and she finally succumbed to it, her family said. They released a statement: "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 who 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."

"We are saddened by Debi’s death. She exemplified the real toll tobacco takes on a person’s body," Dr. Ron Chapman of the state's Department of Public Health. "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. She was an inspiration for Californians to quit smoking and also influenced countless others not to start."

A few years ago Austin made a video about her addiction to nicotine and why she was inspired to become an anti-tobacco activist: