Debi Austin, who was a huge proponent for anti-smoking after being diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, died on Friday after a 20-year battle with the disease. She was 62 years old.
Austin began doing ads which showed the horrifying effects tobacco can have on a person’s body after having a laryngectomy; when her four-year old niece drew a black spot on her own neck to mimic the one left in Austin’s and said she wanted to be like her aunt, Austin realized she needed to do something proactive. The most popular ad became one which is still well-known in California–her home state–despite first being aired in the ’90s.
“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,” said Dr. Ron Chapman of the California Department of Public Health.
Austin said she started smoking when she was just 13 and made several attempts to quit, but never quite succeeded, even after the cancer took her vocal chords. She learned to speak esophageal speech, which she called “burp talk”, and used it in the startling ad that made her a famous symbol in the fight against smoking. Her family released a statement on her passing, saying she was a fighter until the very end.
“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.”