debi austinDebi Austin's anti-smoking ad was the kind of thing you never forget. There she was, a well-dressed, well-coiffed woman sitting there with a quarter-size hole in her throat that was as black as night. She warned us that although they claimed nicotine wasn't addictive, she was living, barely-breathing proof that it was.

What she did next to prove just how addictive they were was absolutely shocking (read on to watch). The star of that groundbreaking 1997 ad has died at 62 after a 20-year battle with cancer. A hero in her own right, Austin's life is still a mystery to the people she influenced. Learn more about the woman who saved so many lives with her own tragic example. 

  1. Why did she have that hole in her neck? Diagnosed with larynx cancer, she had to undergo a laryngectomy that removed the tumor as well as her vocal cords. She had to learn to speak again using "esophageal speech" (also called "burp talk").
  2. How long was she a smoker? After sneaking a cigarette from her father, she took her first puff at age 13 on her way home from junior high. She was smoking a pack a day by high school.
  3. How did she find out she had cancer? In the '80s, she had a chronic sore throat, and by 1992, she felt a small bump under her jaw. A biopsy confirmed it was cancer.
  4. What made her do that TV ad? She agreed to do the "Voicebox" commercial after her 4-year-old niece drew a black dot on her own neck and said she wanted to be just like her aunt. 
  5. How much impact did she really have? The State Department said that she was California's best known anti-tobacco crusader and that commercial was the most talked about ad the state ever produced.
  6. How did she spend her final years? She traveled around California talking to young people and made two more ads.
  7. When did she stop smoking? About eight months after "Voicebox" aired.
  8. She still had a sense of humor about the whole thing. "I thought, 'Omigod ... I'm going to sound like Elmer Fudd on Thorazine for the rest of my life,'" she told The Los Angeles Times in 1997.

 Check out Austin's powerful ad:

 

What impact did Austin's ad have on you?