Debi Austin who was an anti-smoking advocate and famous for her “Voicebox” puffs died on Friday at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys at the age of 62 after a 20-year battle with cancer. Having smoked two to three packs of cigarettes a day, Debi Austin was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Once the tumor and her vocal chords were removed in a laryngectomy, Debi Austin learned to talk by using esophageal speech, or “burp talk,” through a surgical hole in her throat.
According to a Feb. 27, 2013, Los Angeles Times report, Debi Austin “agreed to make the startling ‘Voicebox’ ad only after a 4-year-old niece drew a black dot on her own neck to mimic her aunt’s scar from the surgery and said: ‘I want to be like you’.”
Deborah Austin was born April 13, 1950, in Illinois and moved to Los Angeles when she was 14. When Debi Austin was in junior high school, she took her first puff on a cigarette while walking home from school. She had snatched the cigarette, an unfiltered Camel, from her father.
By the time Debi Austin was in high school, she smoked a pack of unfiltered Camels a day.
By the time Debi Austin studied at UC Berkeley and managed a small, private telephone company, she smoked two to three packs of unfiltered Camels a day.
“In the early 1980s, she sought treatment for a chronic sore throat and by 1992 noticed a small lump under her jaw. A biopsy confirmed cancer of the larynx. Before surgery, she joined a support group for people who had undergone removal of their larynx.”
In the mid-1990s, Debi Austin began appearing in the famous “Voicebox” anti-smoking public-awareness television ad. She stopped smoking about eight months after the ad first aired.
During the past years, Debi Austin continued her role as an anti-tobacco educator and as a powerful symbol for the anti-smoking movement.
In 2011, Debi Austin told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that, “I have a constant upper-respiratory infection. I have emphysema and they want to put me on oxygen but I refused, because once you’re on it you stay on it. So I have to have forced air at night.”
Debi Austin is survived by her sisters, Jamie Marshall of Portland, Ore., and Deena White of Canoga Park; and her brother, Jim Gardner of Camp Verde, Ariz.
According to statement provided by her family,
“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.”