The ‘Bad’ Example Who Became Our Shining Star

Guest Blogger – Serena Chen, American Lung Association in California

Debi Austin was a force to be reckoned with. When her anti-tobacco industry commercial hit the air waves in 1996, we saw a woman who was getting back at the industry that had hooked her into smoking at age 13 – by defiantly smoking a cigarette through the hole in her throat. A hole, a stoma, created when doctors removed her cancerous vocal cord, that was brought to her courtesy of RJ Reynolds and Camel cigarettes. She takes a puff, and then growls, “And they say smoking is not addictive.”

During one of her numerous presentations to high school kids, she remarked, “I am the worst-case scenario that your mother told you about,” she said. “I am the walking dead, the castoff of the tobacco industry that they can’t fix, they can’t heal.”

Debi Austin was scary, and we, tobacco control advocates, loved her. She reached the kids who wouldn’t listen to us, she touched the most hardcore addicted smokers, and she told the kind of truth that only a survivor can tell.

In 2000, the Alameda County Tobacco Control Coalition invited her to speak at one of our coalition meetings and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, maybe even love affair. The Bay Area school districts all clamored to have her speak to their students and Debi simply loved “hanging out,” with the advocates afterwards over dinner where she would tell what we fondly call “Debi stories.” Stories of her childhood and wayward youth. She would drive up to Oakland for our regular quarterly meetings even if she wasn’t speaking.

At our coalition meeting on Mar. 14, we remembered Debi and for those precious moments as we each recounted our memories of her, her spirit filled the room. One 20-something Berkeley youth advocate recounted how she heard Debi speak when she was in high school and how Debi’s story and Debi’s stoma (hole in her throat) “scared her.” There was no way she or any of her friends would ever start smoking she said. It was an unbelievable experience to be in her presence.

A longtime tobacco control advocate, now a TUPE coordinator, spoke of how dedicated Debi was to sharing her message – even as her health declined after bouts with multiple cancers. After speaking at two assemblies, Debi’s throat was raw from the effort, and he could see that it was bleeding.

According to her sister Deena, Debi was not ready to end it yet despite the tongue cancer that finally claimed her life. Deena said Debi had plans for what more she could do to help kids never start smoking. I would say that Debi’s dream will come true because those of us whom she touched – and we are legion — with her humor, crazy stories, and honesty are going to make it come true.

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