SACRAMENTO -- Debi Austin spoke loudest after surgeons removed her cancerous vocal cords.
Austin was the woman with the hole in her throat who stars in perhaps the most compelling anti-tobacco ad ever made. You don't forget it once you've seen it. You probably forced your kids to watch it, though when it first aired in 1997, a squeamish television station manager placed a warning on the screen against allowing children to see it.
Looking into the camera, Austin tells us she had her first cigarette when she was 13, and tried to quit but couldn't.
"They say nicotine isn't addictive," she says as a cigarette burns in an ashtray. She grasps the cigarette, holds it to the hole in her throat, a stoma, tilts her head back, shuts her eyes and draws deeply. "How can they say that?" she said, as the smoke curls back out of the hole.
Debi Austin died Feb. 22 at age 62 at a San Fernando Valley hospital, after spending decades battling emphysema and cancer and, for the final 17 years of her life, the tobacco industry.
In 1988, when about a fourth of Californians smoked, voters approved an initiative that raised tobacco taxes by 25 cents per pack. California's Department of Public Health tobacco control unit used that money to produce many anti-tobacco ads.
In one, the Marlboro Man confides he has cancer. Others warn young men that smoking causes impotence and tell young women that it wrinkles their skin. Tobacco industry executives are shown lying as they swear to Congress that tobacco is not addictive. Mock tobacco executives chortle about how they trick kids into smoking.
The ad titled "Voicebox" is the most memorable. It almost didn't happen.
In 1996, the state hired the ad firm Asher & Associates, which contacted cancer survivor organizations trying to find someone willing to appear in a public service spot. They found Austin. She refused. Why would she want to tell the whole world how dumb she had been?
Two days later, she and her sister, Deena White, who shared a Canoga Park home, were getting ready to go out to dinner when White's daughter, Joy, then about 3, drew a dark spot on her throat.
"Now we can be twins," Joy told Aunt Debi, as Deena recalled the other day.
Austin dug through the trash can until she found the ad phone number, and enlisted in the fight against tobacco -- a "brawl," as she said in a video two years ago. Tobacco had ensnared her, but she vowed that she wouldn't let the industry trap her niece.
Christine Steele, who led the ad team that created the spot, was at the filming in 1996, and recalled Austin's belief that she had been duped by an industry that sought to profit at the expense of its customers' health.
"It was embarrassing and humiliating for her," Steele told me. "Her way to get back at the tobacco industry was to put herself out there."
Once the ad aired, Austin would be recognized whenever she went out.
"It stopped people cold in their tracks," Steele said. "By showing viewers how tobacco had caused one woman's ruin, the ad illustrated how addictive smoking is, and how angry its victims become."
Austin was no angel, her sister said. She ran away from home, married young, and like some children of the 1960s, migrated to Humboldt County. She moved back to the San Fernando Valley after her husband died in 1981 and worked in telecommunications, but wasn't able to quit smoking until after she made "Voicebox." By then, her health had been destroyed.
Over the years, she had breast cancer, stomach cancer, cancer of the larynx, and, finally, cancer of her tongue.